The Wasteland

A few months after I moved into the rental I’m still living in fourteen years later, I put on a clearance rack garden party dress and went to drink beer at the photographer’s house. I relished my solitary wander down quiet residential sidewalks in flat sandals, carrying a cardboard box of Pabst Blue Ribbon, amid the ambient whistle and whir of a clear June night in the South, rosy chintz and tulle shushing about my knees. I took my time, stopping to dawdle with a cigarette on a side street with mill houses full of creepy-friendly yard art, eavesdropping on an argument at the corner across from Town Hall.

The photographer’s house was a yellow saltbox, on the shabby side of rentals, with an interior that reflected a one-time owner’s enthusiasm for baroque floral wallpapers, hence gone to seed in an appealingly southern gothic fashion. I put the beer in the fridge. I wasn’t particularly close to the photographer himself, but we came from the same hometown, and I was getting to know him for the congenial, curious adult he was becoming and not the that dude had legendary parties, that shit was epic he’d been as a teenager. There were a lot of self-identified artists at the housewarming, the local bohemian A-list—gallery owners, indie rockers, writers, and academics. I’d never been good at holding the attention of the self-identified Cool, so I slipped off to the side with the photographer’s brother, who I’d known for a decade, and his then-girlfriend, one of my best friends.

We leaned against the porch columns and listened to an argument between a bartender and a bass player about whether it was too hot to build a bonfire in the side yard (it was). Conversation flickered and flared. Everyone it seemed had read the same article about peak oil that week, which meant everyone was on the front end of imagining whatever apocalyptic scenario would play out once the gas tanks ran dry. We were a crowd of people with thrift store shirts and nice shoes that knew a fair amount about critical theory and Drag City new releases. I doubted our odds of surviving an apocalyptic event and enduring into the subsequent dystopia. Which probably meant we would, seeing as how complete society breakdown doesn’t invalidate Murphy’s Law. And so, we, the already vaguely distressed, dissatisfied and ill-prepared, would be left to wander the ghost-haunted wasteland, past the preppers, survivalists, Rapture-hungry evangelicals, and all other armadegeddon fetishists, doomed by irony. Maybe we could sing Royal Trux and old Palace songs around the campfire we’d build out of hand-annotated Foucault and back issues of The Believer. Hopefully, one of us would figure out how to make gin.

ii.

Remember peak oil?

We were all really worried about it for a minute. The magazine articles predicted end times. The Tipping Point was coming. We may already have passed it.  Reasonably sane people started talking about buying gold and learning how to plant root vegetables. Yams? Cabbage? Turnips? People enduring hardship in movies always eat turnips. A friend’s brother started collecting property in the mountains for a community. Another friend considered learning archery. For hunting and self-defense. I made jokes about my drama past being useful again. Nothing improves a nasty, brutish, and short life quite like a good matinee. Just ask the Elizabethans! Perhaps I could travel from town to town writing plays for a group of itinerant players. I thought, that would make a good book.[1]

iii.

The photographer’s brother moved  to Japan in 2005.  His girlfriend, my best friend,  moved into my house.  She did a couple seasons of abandonment grief, smoking Camels and sniffling, listening to Cat Power in the back bedroom. Instead of widows’ weeds she alternated between two hoodies, one black, one brown, every day for almost eight months. I talked her into coming along with me to Italy, on a 30th birthday trip, even though 30 must have seemed old to her then (she was 24). We got gorgeously lost in Venice and fell in love with Florence and sat in the grass on Palatine Hill in Rome and thought, why go anywhere else but Italy? She shed the hoodies on return and started staying out late. I went to the beach for a week. While I was there, my little sister called. You need to come back, she says. You roommate has gone wild.

 She hadn’t, but maybe my sister had. Maybe I had. Maybe we all had. We went out every night. We drank ourselves silly. We staggered home under the stars so many times that we learned constellations. My roommate waited tables at a bar until ten-thirty, which was about the time I’d wander home from my shift at the record store. We caught the last band  and stayed out until last call.

I was thirty but acted nineteen. I grew my hair out. I wore strappy high heeled sandals. I would go to the bar and sit in the bathroom, staring at the knots in the wooden stall door until it mutated into a wide-eyed horse. I would offer the horse god praise and then swagger out, pretending I was confident, that I was a superhero, an immortal, a runaway queen in disguise.

Maybe that’s why the conspiracy theorist talked to me. Maybe I tricked him. Maybe he caught me in a flattering light. He was a line cook with scarred hands, a furious apostate still wearing Catholic tattoos. He was a relocated Yankee who’d washed dishes on the stormy edges of Europe. He was a well-read swagger with sad, long-lashed brown eyes, radical politics and the sort of improbable genealogy America theoretically makes possible. He wasn’t my type. He was kind of my type  You do have a weakness, said my roommate. For guys that are like that. Like poetic longshoremen? Yes.

The first time we met he quoted Antony and Cleopatra  and then taught me how to throw a punch. Then we talked about cooking and Flann O’Brien. I thought, didn’t I make up this guy for a creative writing assignment in college?

He had a girlfriend. That first night, she hovered on the opposite side of the beer garden patio flirting with one of those white-panted bands from Brooklyn, back in the whenever everyone was still trying to sound a lot like Spoon, a little like Arcade Fire, still a bit like The Strokes. But he still made a pass at me. He made multiple passes. He hinted at an arrangement. She was a musician and going on tour soon. He was cool with her trying to hook up with the band. My friends pulled me aside to say, that guy, that weird bike messenger chef guy, is so into you. Because I’m bad at these things. I don’t notice. I never know.

I left at last call. I walked home, sticky with salty sweat in the still-humid at 2am June.. He’s sort of a disaster, I said. I don’t really like him, like him. I was just attracted. Nothing wrong with that, my roommate said and split off to answer a suggestive text in person. I thought, I don’t have to date him. We could just, like, fool around, slip off for a rendezvous, have a nightcap.

 I was a modern girl. I was liberated. I did what I wanted. At least, theoretically. Even though I hadn’t figured out how to text efficiently and I couldn’t bring myself to call it a booty call.

iv.

It was a weird time.

Bush was still president. The recession hadn’t started yet, but no one I knew could find a  job. I’d applied for 408 over the previous four years. I got two interviews and no offers of full time work.  I was not alone. We worked retail and waited tables. People went back to graduate school to defer college loan payments for a few more years, even though they would just accrue more debt. Friends got married when their partner got a job with health insurance. I remember standing in the kitchen eating reheated frozen pizza I bought with a credit card,  thinking, I am thirty years old. When my mother was thirty years old, she owned a beautiful house. She was married. She had a child. She had a cleaning lady. She went to parties where people wore evening gowns.  She had enough money that she had time to raise money for other things.

Like any reasonable person with no prospects, I finished a fresh draft of a novel I wrote back when I was in college. I gave it to a friend who gave it to another friend who was a literary agent. He liked it,[2] but told me, don’t even consider quitting your day job. Of course, I considered it. I considered exactly how much money I might be able to make off an advance and exactly what I could use that for. I remember thinking, so which of these things I do  for money counts as a day job?

 v.

I talked about writing the first few times I hung out with the conspiracy theorist because he was, of course, also a self-described writer. He gave me obscure surrealism. He tried to get me into impenetrable sci-fi metafiction. He bragged about stealing books from chain stores. I thought that was the sort of thing people grew out of, but he had a lot of talky justification, a hungry undergrad’s talking points—if you’d just read more Chomsky. Then we’d be on to 9/11—an inside job. The IMF—a multinational secret society set on enslaving the world. 

He had me for dinner, at his apartment, stacked with books and his girlfriend’s musical equipment. I had him for dinner. I made Moroccan pastries, which looked terrible but tasted heavenly. He delved deeper into conspiracy. He talked about a friendship he’d had with a renegade Jesuit priest who had helped him uncover the secrets of the world. I thought that sounded complicated. Everything for him was a coup, a scheme, a dangerous gambit controlled by criminals hungry for blood. Everything with him was a red flag. For a while I thought he was half kidding, a shit-stirrer, a what-if-er, a troll of hypotheticals, but when I’d ask questions, but seriously, you don’t really believe that John Lennon’s death was a political assassination? He’d look at me with utmost sincerity, Seriously, Alison? He was 100% murdered by British Intelligence agents because of his support for fthe IRA. And also, Mossad was involved. I handwaved away most of it. Late bar nights in a college town full of weirdos reorients your baseline.[3] I mean, sure, he’d announced that he thought my two best friends were literal witches who were hexing me and perhaps others. But he might have been joking. Right? Right?

He was learning how to farm, trying to talk his family up north into buying property. I think you’re the sort of woman that’s going to survive the apocalypse. I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, or at least, a compliment I wanted. He mentioned I should think about learning how to build a composting toilet, for end times. My sister came by and I watched him ride his bicycle away up the street, admiring his tattooed arms, which looked like something Michelangelo might have sculpted.

 I told my sister he’d described me as the kind of woman that could survive the apocalypse. She asked how that made me feel. Like I want to go to Nordstrom and buy a designer handbag I neither need nor can afford.

I did.

vi.

His girlfriend went on tour in late July. He found ways to bring it up–this forthcoming freedom. I tried to imagine how our eventual coupling would play out. At the bar, I went in to fetch a last round. The bartender, a woman, leaned over the bar and said, he is obviously smitten with you.  When I came back out with a round for him and all the guys from the kitchen, he was mid-monologue, something half-crazy and mostly not true. I listened. I thought I should tell him that I don’t believe in his conspiracies. I thought, I  should tell him that his conspiracy theories are ugly and hurt the very people he purports to help. I thought, he’s maybe insane. I thought, why am I not saying anything? I thought I should invite him to spend the night. But it was late, so I said, tomorrow? And he said yes.

I shaved and bought new underwear. I put out flowers and pulled a stack of soul records. My roommate went out, told me to leave a signal if things went well. He came over around seven. He smelled like soap and garden mint. He wore a collared shirt. I cooked mussels. We ate and afterwards walked outside to sit under the limbs of the oak tree in plastic Adirondack chairs. The sky was overcast, pink with the lights of the town. He complimented my dress. It was green, with snaps down the bodice. We smoked cigarettes and talked about Shakespeare and fist fights and Italy and Ireland, like the first night. We drank a bottle of French wine. He flirted. I batted my eyes. We opened another, cheaper bottle of California wine. The record skipped so I went inside to fix it. I looked at myself in the mirror. Under the glaze of drink, I thought I looked as close as I could get to pretty, all soft focus and dewy, like a waxed lens in a technicolor film, like sixteen going on seventeen in a glass gazebo on a rainy night, but I was thirty going on thirty-one and I was maybe, kind of, probably going to go outside and seduce a terrible idea because he knew poetry and had nice shoulders. I fluffed my hair. I adjusted my cleavage. I went  outside. I thought sultry. I lounged in the chair. I asked, so what’s the exact status of you and your girlfriend. He smiled and said, open to possibilities. And I said, Interesting . . . and I undid the top snap of my dress.

 vii.

There are at least a few hundred common varieties of rejection. I used to act. I wrote fiction. I had not gotten 408 jobs. I had terrible luck in love. Of those, there are at least a few dozen types of romantic rejection.   I tended to get horror and fury. A look of understanding, followed by dawning horror, followed by disgust, followed by a particular variety of indignation, a how dare you even imagine a person like me would ever be attracted to a thing like you?  

So, Conspiracy Theorist’s tirade in my front yard, about what the fuck is wrong with you about I think of you more like a gay man that I have respect for not a thing—a thing– I could have sexual feelings for about I mean, I’m not saying that I need to have a girl with a perfect body and perfect teeth and perfect hair, but my current girlfriend at least has those and I’m not even that into her about goddamn, maybe you’re a witch too, was this your plan? To try and hex me to humiliate me? It was not my first rodeo. He stood up and growled. I flinched. He kicked a chair across the lawn. I thought, he could hit me. I thought, on the bonus, I guess he did show me how to throw a punch. But after he shattered the empty bottle of wine  on the sidewalk, he stalked  off, still cursing me. I could hear his bitch, muttered and snarled over the katydids, from halfway up the block.

I turned off the music. I re-buttoned my dress. I sat, hurt, humiliated, and furious, at him,  but also at myself for letting him make me feel hurt, humiliated and furious. I stared at the oak tree. I thought about the katydids.  I drank wine from the bottle. I told my cat in the window that all men were monsters. I probably didn’t mean it. I wished I meant it. It was after midnight.

I called my roommate. She said, Come up the street. I’m at the bar. The conspiracy theorist is not here. Let me buy you a drink. Even though I certainly didn’t need it. Even though she couldn’t afford it. Even though I cried and snorted and generally crumbled into a salty, weeping mess the whole time in the corner.

viii.

Remember peak oil?

Remember 2006?

Remember those nights at the bar that went on forever?

Remember all the mediocre bands that still tried to sound like Spoon or The Strokes?

Remember the boot cut jeans and the strappy sandals? Remember the way we went to every show? Remember the photographer before he was famous? Remember when that band played at the tiny night club that night we hid beer cans in our pockets and walked home with them because it was too hot during the encore ? Remember knowing the constellations from walking home too late? Remember when thirty felt old?  Remember when the end of the world felt fine?

ix.

The night before I went to Italy, four weeks after I turned thirty, I dreamed I broke a pair of pink glass swans and fell in love with a tender, soft-spoken man who was good at fixing things and listening, who knew the right questions to ask. In the dream, I woke up in his arms and when I woke in real life, I swore I still felt them. I believed I was loved.

Then I packed and flew to Venice.

It was the best day.

I told my roommate about the dream, and I knew, when I watched her, as I wept without dignity at the bar after the conspiracy theorist walked out my life, my hand clenched so hard against the table that the wrought iron imprinted on my palm, whisky chasing wine like a volcano after a drenching rain. I knew she was like, the conspiracy theorist was not the one from the dream. You know he was not the one from the dream.

I didn’t think the conspiracy theorist was the one to mend the swans. He wasn’t the one to ask for the truth and listen, patiently, without horror or fury, as I spoke. He wasn’t the one to hold me in the clear of the early morning when the sun is so bright and the sky so improbably blue, even if I wasn’t headed to Venice, even, especially, if he didn’t know how to throw a punch and he didn’t have a plan for the end of the world, save maybe stay in bed, ask good questions, listen, love me.

x.

The best version of this story is that I never heard from him again, but I did. He wrote a couple days later to ask if I would send him all the books he’d give me back. The books he bragged about stealing. I thought, toll for crossing me. I thought, good riddance.

 The better version of this story is that I never saw him again, but I did. You always do. This is not a big place. He came into the record store a few years ago He had a new girlfriend. She had good hair, perfect teeth, perfect body. I wondered, is she the kind of woman that will survive the apocalypse?

xi.

I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction. It’s an unpopular, unprofitable opinion. But I read history and I’m a woman. I don’t need to imagine the horrors of the future. There’s the the distant past, the recent past. There’s yesterday.  There’s a majority in Congress right now that believes I shouldn’t have any rights to my own body. There are places in the world I would love to see but don’t know if I’ll ever be able to visit, because I can’t go alone.

A few years after the summer of 2006, still in the long tail of Peak Oil, I sat on the front porch of a brown shingled beach house in the unromantic archipelago between Wilmington, North Carolina and the South Carolina state line. I’d gone with friends, all younger than I, and we were having cocktails in a gray, pigeon-feathered dusk, that looked like it should have been cold, but was warm enough for the garden party dress I’d worn to the photographer’s house all those years before. We were drinking Central American rum to the crashy rhythm of the Atlantic.  A friend was one-sentence reviewing his favorite dystopian novels—all of his favorite novels were dystopian novels. He admitted he sometimes couldn’t wait for the apocalypse. Can you imagine? The morning after? People gone? You could jump from house to house? You could break anything you want. You could take anything you want. You could do anything, everything, whatever you want. I thought, why do so many white dudes sound like sociopaths when they talk about their fantasy life?  I said, you could do that now. Because he could.  He just rolled his eyes. I looked around to the others to see if they found the conversation as ridiculous as I, but they were all glazed over, lost in the infinite charms of the post-apocalypse, do whatever I want.

xii.

I don’t look forward to cataclysm. I’m not hungry for destruction.  I’d rather go out suddenly on the exclamation point than wither slowly on the bleeding edge of an ellipses. I don’t need to stick around for the encore.  But the end of the world doesn’t invalidate Murphy’s Law, so I probably make it in my tattered rosy chintz and tulle to use too many words and say too many things and never figure out how to do anything practical. I suspect even then, far from doing whatever I want, I’d still  ruin a dress by wading into spring-ripened streams and consider the horrified fury of rejection. I’d probably still think that things could work out, still, if people would just listen better and ask the right questions.

I’d probably still be out in the wasteland, scavenging through the shards of a shattered world, looking for a pair of broken, pink glass swans and a person to help me mend them.

___________________

[1] I was not the only one to think so.

[2] He’d eventually tell me he was going back to graduate school. Which may have been true for a minute, but he stayed an agent, just not my agent. Which is maybe okay. That novel isn’t very good.

[3] To wit:  I’d spent several long nights drinking at the bar up the street with friends and a well-spoken, clearly intelligent older man convinced that Great Library of Alexandria had been secretly dismantled and saved before its destruction. The Volumes and Scrolls had been removed to various remote locations in Northern Africa and Asia Minor and their location could be determined by using the Book of Revolution, which was actually just a map code

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