Reeling

When I was a senior in high school, I believed my best friends would forever be my best friends. Not that I, or any of my friends, were those seventeen years old will be the absolute apex of my achievement and high school was awesome people. If anything, it might have been our collective dismay at being teenagers and steadfast belief in high school being mostly just a thing you survived was what had brought us together in the first place.

In early November, we all found ourselves together at Ivy League’s house, ostensibly to listen to PJ Harvey, do live ironic commentary to “Beverly Hills 90210” and watch a lunar eclipse, not necessarily in that order. Ivy League’s parents went to bed early, leaving us downstairs with David Silver jokes and hazelnut coffee. We tromped out in the front yard to watch the celestial event and, bored of gazing heavenward, rolled over each other in the frosty grass, Steamroller style, like children, which we didn’t know we still were. Inside, talk got self-consciously raunchy. We decided to play bisexual spin the bottle, which seemed as much a college prerequisite as AP exams and a passing familiarity with the Matador records catalog.  And overachievers, we undertook the challenge with a precise combination of transgressive glee and studious obligation. I don’t think any of us had any grand, paradigm-shifting epiphanies, save that all seventeen year olds, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, are pretty bad kissers. But it became clear pretty early on in the game that Ivy League and Indie Rock were maybe on the verge of becoming more than friends and, like, really needed to get a room, guys, like, for real.  Afterward, Ivy League drove Indie Rock home, by first period the next day, they were together. They seemed happy. We were happy for them.

Ivy League was the first of us to get into college. She earned her nickname with an early decision letter in December, a few weeks after the eclipse  She called to tell me the good news and also that she and Indie Rock were probably over. And I was like, today? And she was like, no, not today, but the writing is on the wall. That sounded ominous, but like many things I  remember that  people told me senior year, I promptly put it out of my mind and went about teaching myself to play Liz Phair songs on the guitar and failing to improve my math grades.

In April, Ivy League told us some fantastically rich New Yorker and his glamorous, Russian wife (not the ones you’re thinking of was sending his seventeen-year-old son to spend his term break from Swiss boarding school with her family.  The exact purpose of the visit–internship, independent study on the ways of the not-rich–were as unclear as how he’d ended up at Ivy League’s house to begin with–friend of a friend of a friend or something. We called him Vlad, which was absolutely not his real name. The first night we met him, he sat on the upstairs sofa at the local coffeehouse dive, French-inhaling English cigarettes and conspicuously flashing a Rolex around. He was kind of attractive in that let’s see how many sovereign nations I can invade before starting a world war sort of way that just begged for a sash and an imperial mustache. But also preposterous and  unpleasant. I remember thinking is this the writing on the wall she was talking about?

 Such was the state of things the night I oh-please I’ll be your best friend, like, forever agreed accompany Vlad to contra-dancing night at Warren Wilson College. Ivy League’s parents had dreamed it up, so Vlad could get some greater insight into local culture. It was a huge ask. For one thing, I didn’t know what contra-dancing was but it sounded like folk dancing and a necessary condition of my continued survival in Appalachian purgatory was strict avoidance of anything described as “folk:” music, art, home remedies, crafts, the world “folksy,” some models of Volkswagens, etc.  Also, Vlad was a pompous ass. I figured he’d be the reason my friends broke up, even if he wasn’t the reason my friends broke up. I wore all-black—a skirt that didn’t twirl, boots not made for dancing– to announce my irritation. Vlad also wore all black, under an all black overcoat, so he looked like the Gestapo on Casual Friday.

The dance was in a barn. There were a bunch of fiddlers playing Celtic music while a group of middle-aged white people twirled around in patchwork calico. It felt like the sort of scene my ancestors deliberately left the Old Country to avoid. A beardy redhead dressed like Mick Fleetwood on the cover of “Rumours” came over to lead us onto the dance floor.  Vlad sort of snarled in German and the man backed away, but told us we couldn’t smoke in the barn.

We walked around the campus, barely talking until we ran into a couple of students outside a dorm. They led us down to a pasture, where we could hear the distant lowing of livestock.  I wandered off, bored. I looked at the stars. I pretended I was in a Bronte novel and Warren Wilson College was the moor. I slipped on something slimy and fell hard onto the grass. The students came over to see if I was all right, but I’d sustained no injury save to my tights and my almost non-existent self-respect.

My boots were covered in manure. Vlad ordered the students to clean my shoes so they wouldn’t befoul his car. Shockingly, they complied. Vlad opened the trunk and pulled out an empty blue mop bucket containing an expensive bottle of champagne he’d bought for (but never consumed at) our prom a few weeks back. He popped the cork theatrically, took a sip and handed it to me, apologetic. It’s warm and this should never be served warm. I thought it tasted delicious. Like ginger ale and stars.

We sat on the trunk for a while, drinking. He told me he really liked Ivy League. He told me they’d hooked up. He told me she was nice and smart and beautiful. I told him that she was my best friend and I knew all of those things were true.  I almost felt sorry for him. It occurred to me that I didn’t know why Ivy League couldn’t go dancing with Vlad herself. It occurred to me that maybe she was breaking up with Indie Rock even now as I sat on the trunk of a car with this preening, confused snoot of a teenager.  That would change things. That would splinter my friend group, which would be splintered anyway by the college diaspora and some training wheels version of adulthood. I mean, I wasn’t stupid.  I’d also longed to leave and have done with this place. But what if I could never make friends like that again? What if this had been my only chance to have friends I actually cared about? Friends that were like me? The thought was devastating.  I drank more.

The students came back with my shoes. Vlad said he didn’t care what I did but he was going to dance one dance to say he had. I went with him. Puffy shirt gave us the side-eye, but the song they were playing was a waltz. Vlad looked around for a better partner, any other partner, but finally sighed and asked if I knew how. I was like, Seventh Grade Cotillion classes, comrade. And so we waltzed, which was how I figured out that his black sweater was unsurprisingly cashmere and he smelled like snow and leather, which would have been lovely if he had been anyone but Vlad.

I pretended we were somewhere else, in some other time on the brink of something momentous. I didn’t feel like I was on the brink of something momentous. My friends did. But I wasn’t really getting away. I wasn’t escaping the south. I wasn’t living up to my fullest potential. I wasn’t about to embark on some grand adventure. I felt like a supporting character, the one left behind, the one they’d think about like, crying shame about her, if they thought about me at all. And I worried that maybe this stupid moment, this awkward barn dance with an asshole would end up being a peak achievement. I didn’t think I could live with that. I sniffled a little. Vlad asked me what I was crying about. I said “World War I.” And he said his father was descended from the Hapsburgs and did I know I still smelled like manure.

I don’t remember the drive home. Vlad made a show of opening the car door for me. He shook my hand. Told me he’d had an illuminating night, and, as if suddenly struck by epiphany, opened the trunk and handed me the bucket.

“For you,” he said, and then exactly “A token of my regard and a souvenir of a rare moment that a person like you gets to spend time with a person like me.

I was still laughing at that line as  I saw his car disappear down the hill. I stood in the driveway, trying to will the next minute from coming, because if kept from moving, maybe I could just languish in now indefinitely. But my head was spinning and standing still just made it worse.

 

 

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Inkstains

I just had this offhand conversation with a perfect stranger (with beautiful tattoos) about why I don’t have any, which, for the record, has less to do with aesthetics or some notion of respectability or fear of commitment (the perfect stranger’s theory), but everything to do with not having experienced or achieved any one thing I’m particularly invested in commemorating forever. And I would have to pick and choose because the rest of my life is sort of an corkboard miscellany inches thick with tacked up, yellowed and frayed weird shit and nostalgic detritus I can’t bring myself to throw away. I carry my history under the skin as well. If you turned me inside out, I think I’d look like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, but fatter, and thus with greater skin area for fresco and the fat itself allowing for topographical maps of experience. It feels almost redundant to mark up the bookjacket, given the fact that it’s already a continent of stretchmarks and wrinkles, a galaxy of moles and an exhibition of irregular scars from kitchen accidents and all the many times I fell down hard and walked away bleeding but mostly okay.

I have thought about tattoos though–a dancing princess from my favorite illustrated version of my favorite fairy tale, an architectural detail, a blue bowl of fire to commemorate all 700 odd pages of the first completed  book-length project I ever finished, then finished again, then realized slowly, and with both relief and disappointment, were the 700-odd pages of the completed book length project I’d have to view as a years-long, intensive, self-guided writing program instead of a publishable novel. I tend to think a tattoo would be a great mark of achievement. Like, “I have finally finished a PhD” or “I have published a novel” or “I have finally stopped avoiding mirrors and cringing at my reflection.” I have done none of these things. Perhaps I never will. At least one–the PhD thing–is probably not in the cards unless I manage “I have finally achieved a level of long-term financial security such that I can both afford to not work for 6-8 years and then subsequently not have to worry about about finding a likely non-existent position in a field the dollar-signed-eyed philistines of business and government would gladly do away with entirely.” And honestly, if I became a rich person, would I ever want to bother with a PhD, that I’m not sure I really want as a not-rich person. I mean, “Becoming a Rich Person” in itself would probably be worth a tattoo as well, though perhaps, here, as I enter let’s-not-pussyfoot-around-it middle age, I should probably just suck it up and get a tattoo for “You’ll Probably Continue To Be A Broke Person, Unless You Get Really Lucky or Completely Realign Your Values System” and it’s corollary “Seriously, Comrade, It Would Take Both and You Have Stupid Luck and a Real Dearth of Faith, Patience and Imagination When It Comes To Either Business or Finance.”

When I was younger I managed to avoid the fusillade of needles and tattoo ink that left many of my friends visibly marked by their juvenile interests. I half worried about it. What did it say about me?  Was I not really cool enough? I wasn’t afraid of needles. I thrilled at the possibility of transformation. I didn’t fear permanence, at least not any more than I feared appearing weak. It was just never the right time. And when it was the right time, I never had the money. (I almost never seemed to have the money).  I remember  waking in the middle of the night on a mustard brocade sofa, recently liberated from the overnight drop-off at a Salvation Army and dragged to a friend’s shitty apartment, to watch a trio of crop-headed teenagers in leather and chains regard each other’s recently received tattoos. The one with the leopard hair and the childlike features was concerned about his latest, the word CHAOS writ large across his concave boy’s stomach. He met my eyes, still half-drooped with interrupted sleep and said, What do you think? Like, are the letters too bubbly, like cheerleader bubbly? I told him no, because he looked so worried. But reader, those letters were as bubbly as a pop song about mylar balloon.

A friend of that period, who’d suffered similar interests, mentioned it recently. How is it we managed to come out of it without tattoos?  He meant it partly as a joke, but there was some swagger in it, a bit of thank goodness we avoided that, a touch of aren’t we better than?  We didn’t. We weren’t. We aren’t.

Some people are less marked by scars and moles and stretchmarks than I am. They probably throw away old letters and take down photos and postcards and weird nostalgic detritus from the fridge long before the corners curl and yellow with age. Maybe they never put those things up to begin with. After all, minimalism. After all, clean slate. After all, OMG, Have you read Marie Kondo? It’s changed my life.After all, we’re Americans. Isn’t that what we’re about? Leave your old shit behind and become anything you want.  Maybe they eschew the x-ray vision that lets them view their own interior tattoos because they’re not interested in seeing themselves done up like 19th Century sideshow performers, with their own obsessions and achievements and epic failures rendered in baroque detail up the torso, around the arm, lapping up the neck and onto the hands, past collars and cuffs, impossible to conceal, conspicuous as flame.

I see that mostly when I see myself. My  inside-out. The plot. The complications. The embarrassment of digressions. It’s all over the place. It covers ever inch of me, from scalp to sole, a palimpsest layers deep already. How could I find space for more?

So that’s what I told the perfect stranger with the beautiful tattoos when she asked why I didn’t have any.

I said, ” Honestly, I think I don’t have enough room.”

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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January 2017

I spent New Year’s Eve of 2016 dancing at a bar up the street with a few of my close friends. It was an unexpectedly good and sweet night and the wicked hangover I endured the next day was surely balanced by the fact that the awful of 2016 passed into the 2017 to the sound of Prince’s “1999.”  We had the window seat in the bar and were all flattered by the dim gold light of the Christmas tree in the corner. Outside, younger people passed, kids that looked like us ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and at least a few scoffed at the sight of us. They think we look old and ridiculous. A few walked on, in search of a New Year’s with more youth and promise, less tainted by forty-ish women in glitter party crowns with dyed hair and weird knee issues and bags under their eyes shimmying to Neneh Cherry songs from before they were born. I want to tell them, those kids that walked away, that forty-something does not feel like forty-something. A thing my mother always said inside I still feel the same as I did when I was seventeen.

Time doesn’t pass the way you think. I still find myself writing 9 in front of the year when I write checks. I still find myself writing checks. I still have the flutter of anticipation on a starry weekend night, as I walk uptown, because maybe anything could happen– adventure, romance, life-altering opportunity, the best time I’ve ever had, honest-to-god, door-in-the-back-of-the-wardrobe magic. And I’m a rational person, skeptical, some variety of atheist, and yet, and yet.

 I could have told those kids, but they’d maybe heard it before. Their own mothers said inside I’m still the same as I was when I was your age. They didn’t listen. They won’t think of it at all until they find themselves champagne-flushed, squeezed into cheap sequins bought at the sort of fast-fashion outlet they’re really supposed to have long since abandoned for ethical/aesthetic reasons and because those clothes are made for the teenagers they’d be preparing for college if they’d made different choices (if they’d married young, if they’d wanted children then, if they’d wanted children at all).

Getting older is weird, guys. How to explain that I was so much more likely to make dismissive kids today commentary when I was thirty. Maybe because then I was still pretending to be a grown-up. Now I know I am irrevocably grown-up with the knot of worry that never abates, with aging family and never enough money and a weird internal chorus of have I made all the wrong decisions? that is sometimes I have absolutely made the right decisions but more often I have made okay decisions considering the circumstances, many of which I could not change. Acceptance is not always acquiescence. Innovation is born out of limitation. I believe I can be content within these parameters, even if talking about it makes me feel like one of those self-help-y cheeseballs in a dumpy, overpriced linen tunics who talks about Buddhism and writes twinkly essays about Fulfillment and Spirit and Creativity. Seriously, if I start wearing socks and sandals to some fancy meditation retreat, you have permission to kidnap and deprogram me. I mean, Jesus Christ.

 ***

 Like all of my friends and a majority of my fellow citizens, I spent January 2017  vacillating between horror and panic at the thought of the incoming President. I read a whole stack of books to avoid reading the news because the news was never good. I let my NPR sustainer status lag and shifted my monthly donation toward newspaper subscriptions and the ACLU, partially because I thought NPR’s 2016 election coverage was bewilderingly terrible and because I found myself better able to read about Trump than hear the man speak.

I neither made nor wore a knitted, pointy eared cap the color of Pepto-Bismol. I did not load on a bus and ride to Washington in the early dawn the day after Inauguration, though many of my friends did. I was driving back from another, less-overtly political trip. I stopped at rest areas along the way to read Twitter Feeds and international news coverage and admired my friends’ clever protest signs on social media. I was moved by the mass of women, even as I worried whether the fervor of fellowship and famous spokespeople and fun craft projects would falter afterwards. The Resistance, as it was, as it is, ended up being more resilient than that. The various grass-roots groups that emerged in the days before and after Trump’s Inauguration mostly eschewed the silly hats and nice-white-lady empowerment anecdotes in favor of the the dull, thankless business of getting shit done.  They organized neighbors. They birthed a number of (effective) high-profile protests and actions in the wake of Trump’s first travel ban. They introduced a number of Americans to the always tedious, often fruitless business of trying to stay polite whilst talking on the phone to smug Congressional staffers every single day for months at a time.

I called Congress. I donated so much of my paycheck that first month. I literally went in to debt, which was foolish and self-indulgent, but so is fear and heartbreak. And that’s what I mostly remember about January 2017. The fear and the heartbreak. All the Go Team bluster I made at the time (and I made plenty) was , in part, what the pretty girls in yoga pants and fancy sweater coats call self-care.  I hung a picture of Princess Leia on the wall. I started writing letters again. I went to The Moth to tell a story about the time I silenced a bullying young racist by means of a cold drink his lap when I was fifteen. My name didn’t get drawn, which was, in retrospect, probably okay. Did the world suffer without another zero-stakes story about another nice white lady flexing her righteousness? It did not.

I showed up for a small local protest that occurred on Franklin Street the morning of the Travel Ban. A bunch of students and local politicians spoke.  I observed the furry gray and white rain clouds pudged out over the old post office cupola. It looked ominous and stormy, snow clouds passing to the north, in Virginia perhaps. My mother called shortly after the crowd dispersed. She was herself in Virginia, tending to my sick, ninety-year-old grandmother, afraid the impending storm would leave her stuck in Nana’s too-warm, cigarette smoke drenched house, where the curtains stay drawn so not to fade out the oriental rugs or damage the 18th century tabletops. She felt guilty about leaving. Nana was old. Nana was sick. Nana was alone save her ninety-four year old husband, whose memory was failing even if his body wasn’t yet.

Nana is my favorite grandparent. She voted for Trump. With age, she’d voiced increasingly ugly opinions and given credence to weird conspiracy theory. She believed we were all wrong, of course. She knew, as she sat in her hot, dark, smoky house, in her velvet robe, eternally convalescent, with cable news as her sole constant companion, that Trump would Make America Great Again. If not for the rest of us, well then, for her. And didn’t she deserve some reward for working so hard, for living so long, for putting up with people that didn’t care about her in a world she no longer understood?

From the outside it looked miserable. Her fury. Her infirmity. Her fear. The inequity of living so long and only to find herself unable and unwilling to exist in the world on her own terms. I sympathized with my mother about the hot, dark house and the awful things she said. I hated it for Nana, too, though, because I knew that past the bitterness and close-mindedness, there was the woman I loved more than anything. I never knew Nana when she was truly young, but even at sixty, seventy, eighty, at the vanguard of ninety sitting under the mock-Tudor arches of Hotel Roanoke on a starry Thanksgiving in 2016, just the two of us, I could still see on her wizened, still lovely face a shimmer of excitement at the possibility of adventure, of love, of life-altering opportunity, of the best time she’s ever had, of honest-to-god, door-in-the-back-of-the-wardrobe magic. That inside I’m still the same as I was when I was your age.

Mom and I took turns telling each other that everything would be all right, because it’s what  you say when you don’t know a thing. I really just wanted to know how to get through 2017. It was on my tongue to ask Mom, but it started snowing in Virginia, or maybe I walked into a deadzone in the forest by the University. I never got around to it.

 
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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