(This is the third part of a series, part two is here)
It was a big deal when the condos were finished. The building was one of the first fully-renovated, maybe the first fully-renovated residential building downtown. In those days, downtown was a millimeter removed from ghost town, and probably still read that way to most people, save my mother, who’d spent the last five years running a non-profit to convince people otherwise. When she’d moved into her first office, in the bottom floor of a mostly-unoccupied art deco office building, I would sit in the conference room in front of the big old store windows and watch trash blow down the street like tumbleweeds and rats the size of poodles wander up out of a formerly enclosed interior alley under the buildings that the first construction in a half a century had unearthed. God knew what lurked down there. Spiders. Rodents. The ghost of the mean old man that once owned the Toy Store on College Avenue, but hated all children.
Mom would say, “We’re going to revitalize downtown and bring it back.” And I would think, Pshaw! Can’t wait to get out of this dump. As if there would ever be more places to shop than the bookshop, the hippie store, and the joint across from her office where they sold top hats, lingerie and flamboyant party masks, as if every day required a fresh ensemble for a “Rocky Horror” screening.
The condos completed around the same time that they finished the construction on the cobblestone street. Then the hotel on the corner opened for business. We all oohed and ahed because the street looked gorgeous, even though most of the retail space was empty. The hotel added an attached atrium, which looked like the 1980s version of heaven—all pink marble and skylights and glass elevators and pink-neon-festooned frozen yogurt stand that stocked New York Seltzer.
Mom moved her office onto the third floor of the atrium beside the condos. Her friends started buying condos in the building next door. We all understood the it to be very chic and truly urbane.
When Dad moved out of the house and into a second floor unit in the condo building, my sister and I were prepped for the place to be swanky, but mostly it was gray. Gray carpet. Gray walls. Gray bathrooms. High gray ceilings. Track light that produced a kind of sad hazy gray light. There was a patio in the back of dad’s unit, with gray and brick walls 8-feet high to discourage trespassers, which gave the outdoor space a real (gray) prison yard ambience.
The first few months at Dad’s new place were a real strange time for everybody. The three of us—my eight year old sister, father and fourteen year old me—had to figure out how to operate in a Mom-less vacuum on weekends. It was hard to tell who was supposed to be doing what. The first weekend we stayed over, Dad looked at me expectantly in the kitchen and asked what we’d be having for dinner. I think I looked back at him in some combination of confusion and mortal terror before our respective stunned silences devolved into a screaming match. My father accused me of being a spoiled brat and I’m pretty sure I told him he was a sexist and that I’m not Mom, damnit. I didn’t even get in trouble for swearing.
Because this argument started recurring, I did my best not to spend much time at the apartment on paternal custodial weekends. Weekdays, I’d crawl over the parking garage wall and hang out in the atrium beneath Mom’s office, eating breadsticks and nachos at the café by the yogurt place with a 9th grader we all called Dino, who also had a parent working nearby. Dino had been to Russia. That made him, in those hazy, barely post-Cold War days, cool and kind of subversive, especially for girls like me who’d recently started to go all a-tingle if someone so much as said the word Bolshevik in my presence. I had bit of a baby crush and after we’d finish our homework, I’d wander upstairs and lounge around Mom’s office smitten until she made me go back to Dad’s. Then I’d usually go hang out at the cathedral or the library until somebody told me I had to leave and return to the gray and my unhappy sister and my unhappy father still sitting in the same chair in the back room, writing in his journal, listening to Paul Simon and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” soundtrack on repeat
The early dad weekends all fade together, a blur of spats and snapshots. A fair-won goldfish that jumped all the way out of the salad bowl my sister kept him in. A refrigerator continually full of half-eaten deli food. A sick day I spent watching Mtv and eating a whole roll of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that so troubled my parents (already ashamed and horrified of my weight), I ended up in therapy for it. I eat to feel the emptiness inside, I told them at the time, even though it was bullshit, but better than telling the truth–I’m hungry and bored and fourteen and there’s nothing else to eat here but mustard and brandy—and being accused of having no self-respect. I woke up every now and then to find homeless men asleep against the grate outside the bedroom window. I’d tap the glass and chase them off before my sister saw. They were harmless, but I knew the men would freak her out. For fun, my sister and I spent hours, playing old classical records on 45 and 78 speeds on Dad’s stereo, dashing around the doughnut -shaped space in the center of the apartment, until we collapsed exhausted or Dad told us to quiet down.
Some Sundays, we’d trot down to the hippie church on the newly renovated cobblestoned street. The minister was a jazz musician. We’d jam out to a funky Nicene creed and participate in sermons on closure where we’d do things like, mold clay and sing “Let it Go” to the tune of “Let It Be” as the psychiatrist father of the most popular boy in my class accompanied us on bongos. Afterward, I hung around for youth group. This consisted of a bagel brunch at a café up the block with several other kids (half of whom also had divorced fathers living in the same gray condos) and my favorite middle school English teacher. We discussed existentialism and camping and “Flatliners.” Sometimes we’d plan field trips to see a Irish folk singers with nice sweaters and crushworthy cheekbones. I don’t remember ever talking about Jesus or prayer, but it was definitely in that youth group that I learned about both My Bloody Valentine and Patti Smith. So I suppose that counts as ample consideration of the sublime.
I turned fifteen in that apartment. I had some friends over from my class, though to call them friends was a stretch. I don’t think most of them even knew me particularly well. I tried to pick cool, but not too popular, kids, the ones that might be impressed with the downtown apartment, but might not remember that I’d been a pariah eighteen months previous. No one was impressed. It was gray. It was February and thus also gray outside. We watched “Tales from the Crypt” and stood around awkwardly by Dad’s stereo because no one else was as into the “Fascination Street” remix as I was. Several of the kids walked the edge of the ice-topped high wall on the patio. I panicked, internally, at their recklessness, but tried to play it cool. A couple kids went out to smoke in the parking lot. Most of them called their parents and left early. I started to think that Dad’s maybe you should consider boarding school next year wasn’t the craziest idea I’d ever heard.
It was just after that fateful birthday party that I went to the bathroom one Saturday night at the apartment and reached the end of my late blooming. I knew what was happening. I’d read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” when I was in the second grade, several years before most of my close girlfriends reached their first big adolescent milestone. My mother had always been upfront about sexual education. She didn’t mince words. She told me that it wouldn’t be a big deal. Then she told me not to hold my breath. “We tend to run late, as a family,” she said.
I went through a few years of feeling awkward about it, wearing a training bra I didn’t need, stocking my backpack with supplies I never used. Sometime around thirteen, I stopped doing even that. My friends had all started and assumed that I as well. I didn’t correct them. I stopped wearing the training bra I didn’t need and wondered if it were possible that it might just never happen. Maybe I’m not entirely female. Maybe I’ll never come of age. Maybe I’m part-boy. Maybe I can live here comfortably on the border of nothing in particular forever. It didn’t sound so bad to me, maybe even kind of a relief.
So it was not exactly surprising when it finally happened, but a little disappointing and terribly, terribly inconvenient. I’d long since stopped carrying fake supplies. I sat in the bathroom for a while, trying to figure out if I could make it out door of the apartment without anyone noticing the blood (probably), but I didn’t have any money and I was still a bit unclear about the mechanics. Even though I was fifteen, a freshman in high school, this was new, and I had no idea how messy it could be. Like, could I make it across the street without looking like I’d come through a massacre? Would I bleed on everything? My mother was hundreds of miles away. My close friends could not yet drive and were across town. And I knew, for a fact, my father could not handle what was happening to me. I hollered for my nine-year old sister.
My sister was about halfway through her fourteenth rewatch of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and gave me a blistering gaze when I told her what I wanted. To wit: “Go get some money from Dad. Go across the street to the pharmacy. Buy maxi pads. Ask the people behind the counter if you need help.”
She didn’t like the pharmacy across the street. It smelled like cabbage and old Cheetos and was constantly full of old people who shuffled in from one of the many grand hotels-turned-senior- housing like pale ghosts in wooly cardigans. The only thing good about the pharmacy about it was its whole wall of hair extensions and weaves behind the counter. That was fascinating. Also they had cokes in green bottles. Did I want a coke?
“Just the pads,” I said. “And please don’t tell Dad. Please don’t tell Dad.”
She sighed and told me to wait. A moment later, I heard the front door close. I sat back on the toilet and started counting the bathroom tiles. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. At thirty, I worried my sister had been kidnapped. At thirty-five minutes, I swallowed my pride and started calling for my father. He didn’t come. So I swaddled my bottom half in roughly a whole roll of toilet paper and waddled out into the hall, jeans around ankles. Nobody was home. I was halfway to the phone, when I heard the front door open and scrambled back to the bathroom.
“We went to K-Mart. The Pharmacy was closed.” And my sister handed me a large brown paper bag containing what must have been the entire Feminine Hygiene aisle. It was a bewildering amount of products. I unloaded something like twenty boxes into the space below the sink. One I opened, utilized, and escaped.
I slunk back to the gray bedroom, hoping my father would forget I as there. I heard him call my name. I shot daggers at my sister.
She shrugged. “I had to tell him what the money was for.”
When I entered his bedroom, he sat in the chair against the far wall, Iron John propped open on one knee, his journal on the other. He was playing Cannonball Adderley playing “Autumn Leaves” on a boom box.
He looked up at me with something like terror, as he said, in excruciating sincerity, “Congratulations on becoming a real woman, bud. Quite the milestone. Want to hear a poem?”
Reader: I died. I died, like a thousand times. I wished I could melt into the gray carpet and disappear into the walls. I flushed scarlet.
Dad, also flushed scarlet (genetics!), thankfully decided against poetry, and satisfied he’d done his duty, turned back to his book with all due haste. I took that as my cue. I shut his bedroom door, and behind me I could hear “Autumn Leaves” swell to heavy metal volume. I took Mom’s emergency contact number and probably 5 dollars of Dad’s quarters and fled over the wall of the parking garage to the pay phone in the empty atrium.
Mom’s friend answered and I demanded to speak to her. When I told her the story, she laughed, because it was objectively funny. Then she asked if I was okay (mostly), if I had any questions (no), and proceeded to tell me all about night clubs and record shops in Chicago until I settled down, because Mom knew me better than most people. “Tell me again about the piano on the bar,” I said. “Tell me again about records. Tell me about the guy that looked like Elvis Costello.”
I slunk back to the apartment, somewhat calmed, and stretched out across the bed in my dark, gray bedroom, wondering if this were the end of all things or the beginning. Would I start wanting babies? Would I finally get boobs? Was everything going to change now?
Yes, but a mixed blessing.
Of course, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
Eventually the owner of the apartment decided to sell Dad’s unit as a condo. I think we were all a little relieved when he decided not to buy it. I’d miss the incredible freedom of wandering through old empty Asheville, largely unsupervised. I wouldn’t miss the apartment at all.
Some five and a half years later, my mother and sister would temporarily return to Haywood. My stepfather, another divorced dad, then lived in the building. He moved in to the unit directly above my father’s, barely a couple of years after my dad vacated. And the summer after Mom remarried, she and my sister lived with him there while a new house was being built.
My stepdad’s apartment was warmer, more beige than gray, much less sad, and by then downtown Asheville was on its way to becoming an something more like a city—though still a shadow of what it’s since become.
When I came home to visit, I’d walk past Dad’s old door and remember the arguments and the long, boring days. I’d think about being stuck in the bathroom because I worried that leaving a red streak on so much gray was the worst thing I could imagine.
Those were the days.
 To be fair, I adored that store.