Dog Days

In August of 1991, my father woke on a Saturday morning and decided to make beignets from a Café Du Monde-branded mix from the supermarket. The idea was relive the charms of dreamy springtime mornings in the Vieux Carre, to serve my little sister some sugared, pillow-shaped lagniappe on hot, dry morning 700 or so miles northeast of Jackson Square.

Dad wasn’t much a of a cook. Food at his house was always a tricky proposition. Items purchased at the grocery store were likely to stay in his cupboard or refrigerator until eaten. If ever eaten. Everything turned into a philosophical debate about permanence in Dad’s pantry. There was a can of red clam sauce that spent the better part of two decades perched like a sentry on the top shelf. I wondered whether Dad bought it as food or as set piece in  some esoteric still life, alongside dusty piles of Communication Arts Magazine, Sunday NYTs for the recycle bin, a novelty relief mug of Popeye the Sailor Man with a cloudy bunch of ancient dried lavender exploding out of the top of his cap

Heating implements proved similarly challenging.  Stovetops and ovens  required observation to see that they did not overheat. Evidence suggests my father had the temperature set too high on for deep frying. Fire erupted from the pot, catching  the cabinets. Dad, in a moment of panic, seized the flaming skillet and chucked if off into the overgrowth under his third-floor balcony. He received several third-degree burns for his efforts. It is a miracle that the entire building, the entire mountainside, perhaps all of North Asheville did not go up in flame. His pet bird, a speckled, inquisitive finch named Atticus, caged throughoug on the sunny end of the dining room table, lived to tweet on for another day, though he would spend the rest of his life smokier shade of gray.

My little sister, at the first sign of trouble, followed the instructions she learned in elementary school. She stopped, dropped and rolled out of the apartment, went calmly and quietly down the stairs, and sat on the curb on the far side of the parking lot to await the arrival of the fire truck. Some neighbor smelled smoke and actually called the fire department. Shortly thereafter, a red truck howled into the parking lot, followed in short order by my mother (who lived about a mile away), an ambulance, Dad’s girlfriend and her two children. My sister went home with my mother. My father was spirited off to the hospital, where he was given some painkillers, wrapped in gauze and left to contemplate his doughnut-adjacent near-death experience

           ##

I was not around the morning of the fire because I was standing beside a girl with a boy’s name at the far end of the hockey field. Despite the fact that she was a year younger than I and also a new student, everyone already knew her except for me, which was not unusual. Everything about field hockey preseason, so far, was  an except for me proposition, including, but not limited to: knowing how to play the game, having actual athletic ability, being able to run a mile without passing out, enjoying the spirit of competition, fitting comfortably in the uniform, having appropriate equipment, having any desire to play a sport ever, understanding the first thing about boarding school culture, private school culture, and if you believed the locker room gossip, having gotten to at least third base with a boy over summer break, and not actively wishing for death because death must be better than drills.

I could feel a flood of sweat drenching my face, stinging my eyes with salt. I just watched the girl with the boy’s name trace the lettering on her t-shirt. 7 Seconds printed seven times. I asked her what kind of band 7 seconds was and she rolled her eyes. This last day of pre-season would be our last day without practice uniforms, dreaded things with sleeveless tops and see-through white shorts. Why do the teenage boys get baggy blue shorts and the teenage girls get tight white shorts when we’re the ones that bleed once a month? I watched the center forward sprint across the field in a Grateful Dead shirt and thought it was weird that all the hippies played offense.

The girl with the boy’s name removed her sunglasses after being reprimanded for the fourth time and said something about how field hockey coaches are such complete cunts.”

The coach blew the whistle, indicating that we should start running.

I looked above me, briefly. The hazy blue August sky began to melt around the sun and the color swirled away. I felt a wave of nausea. I thought I might pass out. I think I might pass out, I said to the girl with the boy’s name.

She gave me a look of withering contempt, observing the fat rolls clearly visible under my off-brand soccer shorts, my Shakespeare printed EXPRESSO YOURSELF! T-shirt, my grape juice colored Chuck Taylors. Everyone else already had cleats. Don’t be a baby. You’ll be fine.

 She was right. I was just out of shape. I was just a whiner. I’ll be fine. I thought. I should totally get over myself. And I fell backward hard onto the grass.

It would not be the only or even the most infamous time I lost consciousness during my sophomore year of high school, but it would be the first time I woke up surrounded by a huddle of girls I barely knew at my new school, with a tiny blonde coach forcing a water bottle out me and asking how many fingers she was holding up. I drank the whole bottle and imagined the luxury of spending the next few hours napping in the cool dim of the infirmary. I thought the world looked a little different. The light brighter, the grass blades knife-edged. Did passing out change the world?  But once after the coach was convinced I didn’t have a concussion, she told me she thought I’d passed out because of the heat and the dehydration. So, go and do a couple of laps around the field as penalty for getting too hot and not asking for a water break.  I clambered up, dusting off grass stain and heaved into a run.

Until field hockey preseason, my only recent athletic training consisted of whatever happened at public junior high school PE, where our stereotypically mulleted gym teacher had long since given up trying to build up our endurance or engage us in sport after all but one of the twenty-seven members of  first period class failed the pull-up section of The President’s Physical Fitness Test. When the gym teach announced she’d be flunking us all, thee class collectively shrugged. I kind of freaked out. I’d never flunked anything in my life. I went to the gym teacher’s office and asked if it would be possible for me to do an extra credit project. Could I write a paper? Or maybe do a presentation? I could probably put together a report about the President. Or maybe someone who does sports things, like Andre Agassi or Jane Fonda? She looked up at me for a good while, blinking, likely trying to figure out how in hell I ended up in first period gym, because the rest of the nerds didn’t come in until at least fourth period, [1] by which point she could adequately caffienate. Then she told me I’d probably die of a heart attack if I didn’t get into shape and to get out of her office.

We spent the rest of that semester doing a unit on “Social Dancing,” which was basically variations on the electric slide, and then they renovated the girl’s  gym, so we spent the rest of the year in the weight room, a carpeted basement cell that liked like a gulag and smelled like death. The gym teacher locked us in and I’d spend the hour sprawled on mildewed wrestling mats, listening to weird hospital stories from a childhood friend who’d recently returned to school after brain surgery. The rest of my classmates argued about boys, listened to LL Cool J and played increasingly heated matches a card game we called Egyptian Rat Fuck.

I’d  since left my fellow degenerates from first period gym at the public high school at the end of ninth grade and enrolled in boarding school, where there appeared to be no expectant mothers and no impressive surgical scars and no one that looked like they couldn’t pass the President’s Physical Fitness Test with flying colors, save me. The athletic fields were rolling green lawns surrounded by English garden cottages with climbing roses and half-timbered Tudor classroom buildings. It seemed several time zones and maybe a couple of centuries removed from my vaguely Brutalist Junior High that always smelled like dirty socks and fish sticks, though, in reality it was about five miles across town.

My dad had gone to boarding school in Virginia, but I’d only been tangentially aware that places like The School existed until the eighth grade, when some combination of Holden Caulfield, “Dead Poet’s Society” and the girls with the best hair at my summer camp suggested another world might exist. I imagined chilly, Gothic passageways thick with  angular, intellectual teenagers in dark wool, imprisoned by parental expectation and WASP orthodoxy, sexually repressed, bullied by wealthy degenerates,  brimming with class resentment and was like, that’s my jam.

But alongside dress codes and behavioral standards and academic achievement (all of which I’d willingly signed on for), the  School also required students to play competitive sports. I was neither fast, nor strong. I lacked both depth perception and hand eye coordination. My instinct, at realizing a projectile of any kind might be headed toward me, was to run away as fast as possible, and then take to rest with a novel and a hot tea to soothe my rattled nerves. I couldn’t figure out why it mattered who won. I didn’t like wearing shorts.

There were two sports at the school you could play in a skirt: tennis and Field Hockey. I knew for a fact that I couldn’t play tennis. I didn’t know I couldn’t play field hockey. I merely knew I hadn’t. Also, the blue tartan kilts were adorable.

Pre-season was engineered to prepare us for team try-outs. But that was all theater, because when everyone is required to play a sport, the coach can’t really prevent anyone from making the team. The coach, however, ran practice  as if our very lives depended[2] on winning the game. Practices were an all-day affair, at the very hottest time of the  year. The coach howled. She screamed. She raged. She belittled. She delivered her best impression of a banshee impersonating a drill sergeant. She recognized me immediately for what I was—a season-long benchwarmer, a lost cause, an apt-to-pass out drain on team morale, who kept trying to use the excuse of kilts to discuss the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the subsequent disappointments of the Stuart dynasty.

We’d broke for a late lunch the day of my fainting and walked up from the gym to eat buffet-style on white tablecloths under chandeliers in the vaulted Arts & Crafts dining hall. I watched boys saunter in. There were so many boys.  The School was only a decade and some change into being coed. Girls were still a slight minority. I considered for the first time how it might be possible to be boy crazy. To be so enamored of the boys and their inherent boy-ness that you could end up a victim of constant, arbitrary desire, turned on by a  haircut, an Adam’s Apple, the awkward  limbs of a still fresh growth spurt, the smell of laundry detergent and inexpertly applied Old Spice. The nervous starry sky electricity that came at realizing you’d been touched, even accidentally, by a boy you didn’t even know you were attracted to. It was a heady feeling and I already felt sort of light-headed, like, I wonder if I actually sustained injury from that fall. Like hitting that grass too hard had triggered the last bit of my late-blooming adolescence. Like I might have lost a few brain cells, but I was suddenly sure that I was mostly heterosexual.    

I wandered back to practice past the pink stone folly of a chapel, what-ifing. After a week of practice, I hadn’t really made any friends. I worried, what if I can’t find the Smiths fans? What if no one here is actually into poetry? The end of pre-season meant the beginning of the semester. It meant classes. It meant that would have to prove myself in all the things I actually cared about. It meant that I would have to walk into convocation on the first day and try to act like it wasn’t the slightest bit weird to see hundred and twenty-five teenaged boys in coats and ties. I would have to sell people on the fact that something so graceless and unlovely and ordinary as me belonged among smart, beautiful rich people at a place that looked objectively like a fairytale.

I had misgivings. Maybe the devil you know. I didn’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t have dreamed. Going to The School had been my choice and toward the end, my exhausting negotiation. Second thoughts were the sort of thing you kept quiet unless you wanted to hear an earful from your as a former public school teacher, I have a lot of issues with private school as a concept mother. Second thoughts were best not aired unless you wanted your father to take back your tuition money and use it buy himself a new set of golf clubs or a couple weeks at Outward Bound.

I was on the field on that last day, after lunch, when I saw the nurse jog down the hill, white uniform startling against the freshly barbered, late August green. Sunstruck, I watched, aware that I should be watching the game I was theoretically playing, the ball I was theoretically charged with keeping from goal, and I saw she was saw she was muttering and as she got closer I thought I heard How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel. And I was about to say, hot. Or maybe not like I thought it would. But as she neared, I saw she was saying a name, not howdoesitfeel but alisonfields. And that was me. Alison Fields, Alison Fields.

 The coach blew the whistle. I shuddered, because I felt her eyes on me. She sighed and pointed me toward the nurse. I jogged off the field. Several girls walked behind me.

The nurse took a breath, your father is in the hospital. There was a fire at his house. Your mom wanted you to know he’s okay and your sister is okay. I gawped. I wanted to know how or why. The nurse said, your Mom said he was trying to make beignets.

 One of the other girls laughed. It was funny. I asked if I could go call my mother. The nurse said, Fine. But the coach said, if he’s not dying it can wait until after the scrimmage.

 The girl with the boy’s name clapped her arm across my shoulder. Too bad about your dad, man. And then quieter, what the fuck is a beignet?

### 

The last night of pre-season, I got a ride from a teammate to my dad’s girlfriend’s house and ventured inside to see my father, his arms mummied in gauze. I sat on the stool beside him and scooted the field hockey stick about the carpet. I poured him a ginger ale into a Snoopy glass and hoped he might ask about my day, so I’d have the opportunity to make something up and make myself believe it. He didn’t.

He sat there, staring at the television, and it was a good long while before I realized he’d dozed off.

I walked outside to wait for my mother.  Dad’s girlfriend came out to stand with me. He’s on a lot of painkillers, she said. The doctor thinks he may still be in shock.

I nodded. I thought about Dad’s apartment I’d never (as it turned out) return to, because he’d move out days later. I thought about fire. I thought I burned every bridge I had in order to get a new life.  I thought what if I was wrong?

Dad’s squeezed my hand, though I’d said nothing, just sullenly gazed at my own shadow against the driveway through clammy late summer mist  in off the lake. I felt guilty for letting her believe my quiet was because I was worried about dad.

You know, I said, I passed out today. At practice. When I woke up, I thought that everything had changed.

 Dad’s girlfriend nodded, and said, that’s you wanted, right? change? but Mom’s headlights flashed against the driveway. I didn’t have a chance to answer. I never told her that I wasn’t sure what was scarier—that idea everything had changed and would continue to change, inexorably, permanently or that maybe nothing ever really would.

I got in the car with Mom. She asked me how my dad was and how my day had been. I said fine. I said long. I said I can’t wait for classes to start.

 And after a second or two, I couldn’t even remember whether I was lying.

_____________________

[1] I was just about the only kid in my junior high on the Gifted track that wasn’t also in marching band. This confused everyone, but I tried to explain that the only thing worse than wearing a cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and being forced to play sports on a field in inclement weather would be to wear an even uglier, cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and force-marched around people playing sports on a field in inclement weather while playing “Title theme from ‘Top Gun’ ”  and “God Bless America.”

[2] Field hockey arms teenage girls with blunt sticks and compels them to drive a hard, plastic ball into a goal at the other end of field thick with other teenager girls carrying heavy wooden sticks. Save shin and mouth guards, there’s precious little in the way of protective gear. Injuries get ugly. The coach put me on the field as a sweeper, and that’s the position where I stayed. I told one of my team mates I was afraid of someone hitting my face with a stick. She was like, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Play your cards right and you might be able to score a nose job or get your jaw wired shut. My cousin dropped three dress sizes that way.

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