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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”

 

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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.

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Dance, Dance Revolution

Sometime back in the halcyon days of 2000, before George W Bush and 9/11 and Katrina, before the War on Terror and Social Media and Sarah Palin, before Brexit and Trump and Taylor Swift,* back when not only Prince and David Bowie were still alive, but also Joe Strummer and MCA and Johnny Cash and album sales, back in the day  before “Back in the Day (feat. Jay-Z),” I remember discussing the upcoming presidential election with a musically-minded friend of mine. I was planning to vote for Gore. My friend was undecided, bordering on indifferent. He found all the candidates dull and uninspiring. He thought Gore was a tool of the Establishment who would usher in nothing more than the same old Status Quo. He found Bush loathsome, but unlikely to win. But even if he did, “I mean, there are some benefits, right? Like music always gets better when people get angry. And Bush will make people angry.”

I spent the couple years of the Bush Administration writing record reviews and the next six working in a record store. I’m here to tell you my friend’s sound of the revolution, if it came, went largely unheard. There was a lot of post-punk revival and dance-punk and manic pixie dream indie rock and backpack hip-hop and major label garage rock and Nelly and Eminem and “The Black Album.”  Some bands were putting out explicitly political records. But either the bands were too obscure or too old or they were too Green Day, and they failed to coalesce into the kind of wide-spread “protest music” wave the Baby Boomers have literally never shut up about since they first heard Dylan back in ’64 and it changed their life.

And that brings us to now.

So, like, 2017 nearly broke me. Some of you will take a long, pitying look at the playlist attached here and think, “Yeah, right. Nearly? That’s cute. You. Are. Totally. Broken.”  It was certainly a year when I’ve listened to less new music than I have in years past. It was definitely a year in which I’ve sort of avoided whole genres—genres I’ve traditionally liked– because I didn’t think I just could handle being yelled  by angry white dudes on my own time.  Whenever anyone has asked me, I’ve told them I’ve been listening to Smooth Jams. And I don’t think people have realized that I was being 100% totally serious. I’ve also listened to a lot of hip-hop. A fair amount of straight-up pop music. And really just a whole, whole lot of women.

There’s a lag-time in making art that’s explicitly topical. In last week’s book list, I remarked on it (for novels, it’s about 4-5 years, which accounts for the staggering number of 9/11 books that all seemed to come out at exactly the same time). In music, the turnaround is usually a little faster, which means there could be some critical mass of Trump records next year or the year after. Maybe that’s okay. I’m not sure I could have handled the full-throated Sound of the Resistance during the first half of the year, back when I was still showing up stunned at protests and trying to suss out how scary (pretty darn scary) things were going to get and how fast (kinda speedy) they were going to get there, but by the middle of the summer I was kind of hoping for something for more than what I was getting.

And yeah, that’s not really fair. I’m pretty sure a lot of artists out there were as gob-smacked, and indeed, broken by recent events as I’ve been. I will say that 2017 has had a lot of beautiful,  fragile, heartbreaking music. Maybe that, in itself, is a kind of protest, an aria in the face of a roar. But lord, if there were ever a year I needed beautiful to be furious and not just sad. I needed the voices from the darkness to come calling out with poison on their tongues and an eye to tomorrow instead of a poetic sigh and a litany of regrets.

But that’s fine. We’re allowed to grieve. We’re allowed to chill. We can indulge in self-care, when everything else feels impossible. Remember the small things. Enjoy what you can.

So yeah, there’s some fury. Kendrick. Vince Staples. Algiers.

I listened to that Thundercat record for about six weeks straight in the spring (I wasn’t lying about it). I finally figured out what you guys were all on about with Waxahatchee and Big Thief. I finally gave up trying to figure out why everyone loves War on Drugs so much. Slowdive, is, if anything better than I remember. It’s the sort of year where telling you I liked most of the Lana Del Rey record doesn’t sound like a guilty pleasure admission, but telling you that I really liked one track on the Spoon record does. And did you listen to that SZA record? It’s great. And all that weird, jazzy broken up soul—Ibeyi, Nai Palm, Jhene Aiko, Moses Summey. There were some great singer-songwriter albums (the musical equivalent of Coming of Age novels for me—like, I always approach with a lot of trepidation), Aimee Mann, Laura Marling, Joan Shelley. Also enough peppy, 90s-aping, girly pop punk (Charly Bliss, The Courtneys, Alex Lahey, et al) to make me go searching for all of my old Fastbacks records (Millennials: have you heard this?). It’s becoming increasingly clear that I’m just going to be on board with whatever musical situation Sabrina Ellis is involved in (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), so there’s that.  And you know, I’m still buying every Thee Oh Sees record that comes out, no matter how they spell the band name. That Priests record was marvelously terse, right? And the Mount Eerie record is maybe the most perfect grief album I’ve ever heard, and so utterly, wonderfully devastating. Oh, and I slid a couple of full-on pop song earworms on this list, for which I will make no apology.

I didn’t include “Despacito.”

You’re welcome.

I will conclude with this:

The Spotify year-end analysis widget told me that the song I’d listened to most this year was none of the above, but, in fact, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to The Feeling,” a song so bright, cheery, and relentlessly upbeat that probably caused tooth decay and heart attacks in broad sectors of the population. Now, I mostly listen to Spotify while exercising, so there’s a definitive skew. But maybe 2017 was the year that I finally got around to Poptimism in its truest sense. Like, “the only thing getting me through the day is this relentlessly chipper, breathless, sugary pop song” and I have to believe in something so it might as well be the fact that I can break the ceiling and dance on the roof (and maybe that’s not a metaphor, but just fucking literal).  Because everything else is so broken. And I’m broken. And as we’re all shattered and bruised and still trying to figure out just how fucked up we actually are maybe it’s okay to imagine that we can fight the Nazis and the racists and the entitled patriarchy and the evil oligarchs and the religious zealots and the casual rapists and bigots of all stripes with ridiculous, over-the-top dance, pink glitter, fake eyelash dance parties. Maybe now what we do is dance and cry and go like there is no tomorrow because the real work of fixing everything that’s wrong is going to be a lot more work and a lot less fun.

Someone–I’m sure it was a dude– told me that math rock is coming back.

Figures.

Here’s 8 records(in no particular order) that I really liked. I may add more to this list as I think about it.

Thundercat–Drunk

Kendrick Lamar–Damn.

Vince Staples–Big Fish Theory

Waxahatchee–Out In The Storm

SZA–Ctrl

Mount Eerie–A Crow Looked at Me

Big Thief–Capacity

Nothing Feels Natural–Priests

Jay Som–Everybody Works

Here’s your 2017 playlist, friends. It includes a few things (they’ll be pretty obvious) from other years that I’ve listened to a bunch this year as well.

PS: I have a good, solid feeling that Batfangs are going to put out one of my favorite records in 2018. Prepare yourself.

 

 

*FYI: my visceral, possibly irrational dislike of Taylor Swift only seems to grow with each passing day. I can’t seem to help it, but she’s not doing herself any favors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading List: 2017

I have other places to put stuff like this, or I should have other places to put stuff like this. Because no reason to sully a good run of anecdotes with a fairly drab year-end list, but, for now anyway, the list resides here.

This is what passes for my Best of 2017 book list.  I’ve tried to limit to books that came out in 2017-ish (with a few exceptions ).  I don’t like ranking things, so in no particular order:

Days Without End Sebastian Barry.

A chatty, romantic young Irish immigrant lights out for the territories with his best friend through the tumult of  war and manifest destiny in the tumult of America’s middle 19th century.

Short review: This is a gorgeous book. It’s a western, sort of, and a love story, definitely.  Do not be turned away by its Booker shortlist historical fiction white dude pedigree. There’s way more to it than that.

Line I Underlined: “In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment”(108).

Semi-Related: Grace by Paul Lynch is a dreamy, grim road novel about a teenage girl trying to survive the trials and tribulations of Famine-era Ireland. It has a whiff of early (Tennessee-era) Cormac McCarthy about it and if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this.

The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry

An unconventional widow and scientist removes herself to a small English seaside town rumored to be visited by a cryptozoological creature and strikes up a friendship with the local minister and his family.

Short Review: If you know me at all, there’s a reasonably good chance I’ve recommended this book to you this year. Months later, it haunts me, and not just because of its smart, sort of steamy collision of science and faith, but for its language, its humanity, its expanse of silvery water.

Semi Related: Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach is, depending on who you ask, one of the year’s best books or one of the year’s biggest disappointments. I have my quibbles, but I thought it was a well-researched page-turner. And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that will delight the member of your family that most loved Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow  allow me to give you my unqualified recommendation.

 

Autumn—Ali Smith

A short novel that vacillates elegantly between the reveries of a 101-year-old dying man and the day to day of his 32 year old occasional mentee, sometime caretaker and good friend, as it grapples with the business of living (and dying) in 2016.

Short Review: In general it takes a few years for novels that process current events to be release, because writing takes a while. That means we’re going to get a lot of books about the absolute horrors 2016/17 in a few years (they’ll be doozies). But the meantime, Ali Smith managed to publish a post-Brexit state of things novel (the first of four, evidently) before most had time to even process it. Ali Smith is a fantastic writer. Her slim novel is not a rant, but a elegiac, sometimes playful, sometimes shattering meditation on loss, displacement and the indifference of the changing world.

Line I underlined: “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was shipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic . . .”(59, but actually all of 59-61).

Semi-Related: Exit, West by Mohsin Hamid.  Hamid’s lyrical, magical realist fable of two lovers and refugees trying to find a home after leaving their unnamed, war-torn Middle-Eastern nation origin will probably end up on syllabi and summer reading lists for the indefinite future.  You could cut to the chase and go ahead and give it to your college-bound cousin so she doesn’t have to buy a copy next fall.

 

The Changeling--Victor LaValle

A contemporary fairytale about a rare book dealer, his librarian wife and their child and a true parenting nightmare.

Short review: Someone described this book to me as the scariest novel they’ve read all year. They weren’t wrong. LaValle weaves myth and legend and the literal supernatural into a book about monstrous children, monstrous parents and, like, actual monsters. Reader: I jumped.

Semi-Related: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge. In fact, the book that literally concerns itself with famed horror writer (and outspoken racist) HP Lovecraft is not scary at all, but a literary mystery that moves from New England to New York to Florida to avant-garde, post-war Mexico City, in a tale that constantly turns on itself asking questions about identity and the nature of truth. Also a total page-turner, friends. Like, “you could take this on your holiday to the tropics” page-turner.

 

White Tears—Hari Kunzru

Two young white men produce an ersatz Delta blues record. All hell breaks loose.

Short review: This clever, biting satire on cultural appropriation, race, class and white privilege is the second scariest book I’ve read all year and a breathless, roller coaster of a read. Buckle in.

Bit I underlined: “My memory is a mystical conspiracy of connections. Everything has already happened. I am a man, sitting in a chair, listening to a recording made long ago. The needle is traveling in a predetermined track. Eventually, sooner or later, it will hit the run-out groove at the end.”

Semi-Related: I’m still trying to decide whether I even liked C.E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings, which technically was out last year, but I didn’t get to until the summer. I have a lot of thoughts that I won’t share here. Suffice to say, it’s a super-ambitious–big, bloody, nasty gothic novel about two families (one white, one black) about race and horse-racing and why heritage sounds like a dirty world. Come for the skeletons in the attic, stay for the worst white people in Kentucky not named Mitch McConnell. If your Aunt Denise is still talking about “Mudbound” and is not afraid of a doorstopper-weight novel, she might like this one.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—Arundhati Roy

The last half century of Indian history is viewed from the margins by a collection of outsiders.

Short Review: A lot of reviewers famously didn’t like this book. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with them. I mean, it’s possible that not everyone wants to read a sweeping story about transformation and revolution and politics (in all derivations)and  what we talk about when we talk about beauty and the awesome power of created family. But for real, though, why don’t you?

Line I Underlined: Loaned out copy, TBD.

Semi-Related: Hey, you’ve probably already read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, right? It’s a hard book to recommend because it’s a hard book.  But it’s bracing and honest, reading it feels like having an intimate conversation with the author. But some piece also feels much bigger, almost universal in how it is to occupy space and grapple with some so simple as inhabiting a female body, no matter its size.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo—George Saunders

The souls inhabiting the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln has recently been entombed observe the 16th president as he mourns his son.

Short Review: This is maybe the funniest and the saddest book I’ve read all year at the same time and throughout. Written mostly in dialogue (with a few news clippings), the novel is clamorous and naughty and ridiculous and sublimely heartbreaking. Fans of the straightforward (and haters of too much talking) will complain, but I full-throated LOVED this book.

Semi-Related: So now that we’ve addressed the other book with the bawdy theological debate, philosophical conversations, literary allusions and the soul of a child at stake, it’s time we addressed the only actual kid’s book on this list. Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in his Book of Dust series, which will evidently bookend the His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ll go on record as saying that Pullman is my favorite living writer of books for young readers. His worlds are finely wrought, richly imagined and equally entertaining for adults, who like a rich adventure, rife with magic and a touch of finely honed iconoclasm.

 

Moonglow—Michael Chabon

A sprawling autobiographical novel that tells the story of the author’s family from (roughly) World War II to present, touching on science, politics, art and culture.

Short Review: I have overrated Chabon in the past, so I get that you’re dubious. But this was a fantastic story and of all the contemporary white male writers that goateed, beanie-wearing blowhard you went out with that one time wouldn’t stop yammering on about, Chabon is the only one I still genuinely like.

A bit I underlined: “Like most wonders, the fire in the hickory tree was of short duration, and when its meal was through, it winked out like a candle snuffed. The suddenness of its departure, my grandfather said, was a measure of how thoroughly it had consumed the available fuel. One minute it was there, a comet plunged to earth, dazzling the January darkness, its heat so intense that it stopped my grandfather in his tracks. The next minute it was gone, along with the tree fort, the tree, and the cult of gentle New Jersey ecstatics who had planted it long ago” (89) .

Semi-Related: I read Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. I think it shows its work a little too much for my taste, but if you’re after another sprawling, not-entirely-linear tale of a family during the middle of the 20th century, give it a go, or, better, give the hardback (pleasingly dense) to your dad or your uncle or whichever member of your family most likes Philip Roth novels

Idaho—Emily Ruskovich

A History of Wolves—Emily Fridlund

In the first, two women reflect upon a horrifying tragedy that occurred in a remote part of northern Idaho. In the second, a young woman, raised on a commune in a remote corner of Minnesota, develops a friendship with her new neighbors and tragedy ensues.

Short review: It’s not fair to lump these books together, but they’re both very good and slightly similar and brutal, especially if you are the sort of person who struggles with terrible things happening to children. The latter got a surprise inclusion on the Booker list this year, which means you’re probably more likely to read about it elsewhere  (and possibly find in the Little Free Library, come the new year). They’re both also very good at convincing me that I never want to live out in the country.

Semi-Related: The desperate, self-destructive teenagers at the heart of Julie Buntin’s Marlena have a whiff of “the characters in my rehab memoir” about them, but if you can get past the occasional stretch of grown-up moralizing, this is 100 in a 55mph zone in a busted car with the best, worst friend you ever had. You know the one your mother told you was a bad influence and you knew she was right and you didn’t care? That one.

 

Kintu—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

A multi-generational, centuries-spanning  magical realist epic concerning the plight of a supposedly cursed Ugandan family from the middle of the 18th century to present.

Short review:  Makumbi is a marvelous writer and this big story full of history and mythology and enough characters to require a chart (fun fact: I made one) deserves the positive comparison to 100 Years of Solitude . Kintu flew under just about everybody’s radar this year, which is a shame because it’s a hell of a book. Don’t let it fly under yours.

Line I Underlined: (Loaned Out, TBD)

Semi-Related: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is another big, sprawling, multi-generational family tale set in Korea, through much of the mid-late 20th century. It’s a fast read for a big book, full of engaging characters, even though it struggles in its conclusion to find its footing. Go ahead and get your Mom a copy for her book club.

The Hearing Trumpet—Leonora Carrington

An elderly woman is shipped off to a most unusual nursing home in Mexico. Chaos ensues.

Short Review: Unlike all the other books on this list, The Hearing Trumpet was not even written in this century. I just got around to it this year though. And what an absolute joy! If you’ve ever sat back and thought to yourself, “God, I wish there were an uproariously hilarious, surreal novel about richly imagined, capable old ladies on an adventure with angels and demons and transgressive nuns and other magical creatures through time and space to the end of the world and beyond,” I have some fantastic news for you.

Semi-Related: Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is the sort of dystopian novel that even someone like me (who doesn’t really like dystopian novels) can get behind. Come for the trenchant commentary about reproductive rights in an end-of-the-world situation, stay for the Goth teenagers and the jovial, hyper-educated Ojibwe convenience story owner and tribal council member who writes down daily, often witty reasons to keep going in the face of the void.

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake—Chiara Barzini.

An Italian teenager is relocated to LA in the early 90s by her filmmaker parents.

Short Review: I really do try to avoid coming-of-age novels, but this one really is worth your time. Barzini’s heroine is a total disaster area in a lot of familiar teenage ways, and her story almost has a bit of a seedy picaresque quality as she shuffles from friend group to friend group from Italy to America to Italy and back. There are tragedies. There are triumphs. There are hippies in  Topanga Canyon. There are drive-bys at the mall. And there’s an extended summer vacation in Siciliy that is almost reason enough to read the whole book.  Don’t be scared off by the godawful cover art. It’s great.

Semi-Related: Kiese Laymon’s Long Division is one of the best books I read all year. Even though it did come out in 2013. And I read it then too.  This year’s  re-read proved that it holds up. Its subjects are still painfully relevant, if anything in the #blacklivesmatter era, its even more so. And besides, who doesn’t love an odyssey through post-Katrina Mississippi in a time machine with a failed Spelling Bee champion and his crush?  That’s what I thought.

Other Recent or Recent-ish Fiction I read and enjoyed this year:

House of Names—Colm Toibin

The Idiot—Elif Batuman

Homesick for Another World—Otessa Moshfegh

The Kindness of Enemies—Leila Abouela

Augustown—Kei Miller

Outline—Rachel Cusk

The Lesser Bohemians—Eimear McBride

Man Tiger—Eka Kurniawan

The VegetarianHan Kang

The Refugees—Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nonfiction:

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail—Oscar Martinez

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys—Viv Albertine

The Unruly City: London, Paris and New York in the Age of Revolution—Mike Rapport

The Rules Do Not Apply—Ariel Levy

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—Matthew Desmond

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Edited by Jesmyn Ward)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—Nancy Isenberg

 

Still on the To-Read* list:

The Leavers—Lisa Ko

Grant—Ron Chernow

Five Carat Soul—James McBride

Home Fire—Kamila Shamsie

Sing, Unburied, Sing—Jesmyn West

Mrs Osbourne—John Banville

The Ninth Hour—Alice McDemott

Reservoir 13–John McGregor

 

Happy Reading, friends! See you in 2018.

If you’re interested in the rest of the stuff I read this year (fiction, non-fiction and otherwise), you can check it out here.

And as a total anecdotal sidenote: I have finally nearly finished every single book I bought at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway back in fall 2015, when a couple of the employees explained that if I didn’t stop myself I’d have to rent a container to get all of the books I bought home with me. A fair point. And while we’re on the subject, you should absolutely find an excuse to go to Ireland just so you can visit Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. It’s the best.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pilgrims

The most important thing to know about the Thanksgiving I spent in Portland, Oregon is that I’m not sure I was even really supposed to be there. It was a delayed realization after I’d packed the bag and bought a plane ticket and watched my roommate give me a look of wilting indifference. It was after I told my parents I was absolutely not–oh-hell-no–coming home to spend the holidays with my recently expanded step-family in my mother’s brand new suburban tract mansion on the far other side of town from where I grew up and where it was miles to downtown and I knew no one. None of my high school friends that would still speak to me would even  drive all the way out there and the ones that maybe would—Portland and Ivy League– were spending their Thanksgiving together elsewhere so it’s only natural that I crashed their party

The day I left to fly out, my father was driving me from my hometown to the Charlotte airport when I mentioned that that friend that I was ostensibly staying with for the week had not ever responded to my I’M COMING email. This might have been a 1996-access-to-email thing or it could have been an oh, so, like, she’s really coming? thing. Whatever the case, Dad sensed there might be more to it than I was letting on. I was twenty years old, on my first cross-country trip, alone and I maybe had a hundred bucks in my checking account (which counted as rich in those days). He handed me a credit card out of his wallet—a loaner, only for emergencies—and instructed me to use it for a hotel if anything went sideways.

We stopped in Dallas for a layover. I smoked in a glass box and wrote in my journal, which isa guaranteed way to avoid talking to people when you’re a twenty-year-old box-dyed unnatural ginger in a tweed mini skirt and a motorcycle jacket. The journal was a tiny, square sketch book.  Maybe 5×5. I scribbled furiously. All caps, tiny letters, as if to say Art is suffering and I’m way too hardcore to let a little handcramp slow me down. I drew lots of pictures of emaciated people with unflinchingly punk rock hair. Probably because I was a fat person with the kind of punk rock hair that allowed me to work part-time as an office assistant at an upscale residential real estate firm. Which is to say, not very.

I landed at Portland at 9pm their time. I stepped off the jetway into the Pacific Time Zone. I  didn’t feel any different, but I went to the bathroom to check my reflection just in case. Outside, I was relieved to find my friends who seemed reasonably happy and not at all aggrieved to see me. They remarked about the size of my suitcase (Large).

“Planning to say awhile?” asked my Portland friend.

I laughed like that was funny. I thought, maybe. I didn’t tell them I’d brought 600 page drafts of my unpublished first nove I’d spend the night previous frantically xeroxing for them to read. I sort of hated myself for that.

 We drove through the rain to Portland friend’s house. Ivy League sat in the passenger seat. I sat in the back. I didn’t care. We listened to Prince on the stereo and I watched Portland shimmer through the rivulets of rainwater on the car window.

Portland friend lived in a brown, shingled rental house of pre-war vintage on the southeast side of town. There was a spacious front porch, surrounded by rhododendrons and various brambles. An old car front seat of what I think was a Buick, had been set up like a divan in the far corner. That’s where I smoked and wrote

None of Portland friend’s roommates were west coast natives. Everyone were nonchalantly stranded in Oregon for the holidays. The plan was that we would make our own Thanksgiving. Everyone would make a dish. Ivy League and I decided to make a grits casserole because we were both from the south. Someone put out an open call to the International Students at Reed College and told their friends to tell friends. Crafty scroungers came by to erect banquet tables out of rain-warped plywood and cinderblock. Portland friend’s twenty-one-year old roommate hit up a Sam Adams distributor[1] and bought cases of day-of-expiration beer for nickel per bottle. We spent the better part of two days driving around to pick up ingredients and, sort of, incidentally sightsee along the way.

I loved Portland. I loved it instantly and wholly. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown with bigger mountains and more water. Maybe because it reminded me of a bigger, more cosmopolitan version of my hometown a continent and nearly 3000 miles away from everything I was trying to get away from in my hometown. But I adored the rain and the green things and bookshops and the bridges. I loved the overwrought cafes and the bungalows and the pretty, lithe, literary-tattooed boys who would look you right in the eye and tell you earnestly that they were studying revolution. Compared to the ugly, rigid, beige sprawl of the New South city where I unhappily lived in those days, Portland looked heavenly. My ridiculous journal at the time reflects this. I wrote long passages about feeling content, about being warm, despite spending, in retrospect, much of that trip feeling sort of lonely, at a distance from my friends (who I believed–at the time– were maybe kind of ashamed of me because I was always  ashamed of myself) sitting outside on the porch in the chilly November drizzle, blinking back tears at the city lights.

On the day of Thanksgiving, we rose early and spent almost the whole day in the kitchen. Ivy League and I made giant aluminum vats of cheese grits and only-recently-no-longer-vegan Portland friend posed with her excellent turkey. The crowds started to mass just after sunset. Twice as many people showed as were expected. They came with casserole and wine and beer and pot. They came with travelling packs still strapped to their backs. They came from multiple schools and multiple cities and and  out of a car from somewhere in the California desert and off a train on a journey that began in New Hampshire. They came from Kenya and Thailand and Germany and Colombia and Detroit and Charleston, SC. As I went down the line, talking to people, carving out servings from dozens of dishes I didn’t recognize, among strangers, in a place I had never been, on the other side of the continent from home, I had this notion of This is Thanksgiving. Like, for real.  In a moment, a holiday I’d long since associated with 17th century religious zealots, ugly history, awkward family get-togethers and grotesque and unnatural acts committed upon sweet potatoes became kind of my favorite holiday. And throughout the rest of that evening, I wandered fizzy-headed and almost impossibly happy through a house crammed with food and fascinating stories. I was enchanted by the we’re all going to sit down and eat this together. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe or where you’re from or what you do or the fact that you maybe brought that tripping raver girl that’s offering to recreationally taze people “for fun” in the front yard and, like, maybe that’s kinda dangerous, so maybe someone should go out there and try to disarm her? That night I went to bed in a sleeping bag on Portland friend’s bedroom floor thinking, this was one of the best days of my life.

 I spent most of the rest of the 90s and into the 2000s, traveling over Thanksgiving, trying to recreate some semblance of whatever alchemy occurred in Portland. I went to Massachusetts and Texas and South Carolina. I insinuated myself into numerous friends’ family affairs and tried to cobble together new traditions in other places. It never took. For the longest time, I thought it was maybe a geographical problem. Something about not being on the west coast, in general, or in Portland, in specific. But in 2002, I found myself living in a shabby, rambling bungalow in Carrboro, North Carolina. It was house full of people I loved, with a large screened in porch fitted with an old wicker love seat in the corner, where I smoked cigarettes and wrote in my journal (larger, lined, no longer in cramped All Caps). Late at night I would sit out there, as the season cooled, and talk about Thanksgiving in Portland, about the lights from  porch  of the house on the hill and the foggy indigo color of the cloudy night skyand how all of the guests though Ivy League’s and my grits casserole was polenta. A couple days before Thanksgiving that year, I called people and made a turkey. Only twelve people came that first year, but I felt stir of something familiar. So thirty-five people came the next year. Then I moved into a new (ironically smaller)house. Our invite list expanded. Fifty-eight people came the fifth year. That was a record.

So.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I know the historical baggage. I know the family complications. I know the psychological challenges. I know it’s bad for your health and weird for your friend with all the dietary restrictions. For me, though, it’s not really about any of that. It’s about sitting down to eat with people I love and people I’ve never met. It’s hearing stories, trying new things and having a house so jam-packed with people you wonder, during, if you’ll find a seat, and, after it’s all over, at how lucky you are to have spent the evening with all these people. It’s about not taking your community, in its broadest sense, for granted and celebrating all that has to offer.

Here we are at 2017. Tomorrow will be the sixteenth time I’ve cooked a turkey. The sixteenth time I’ve moved the furniture around. The sixteenth time I’ve made the same dumb Puritan jokes. The sixteenth Potluck. It’s my favorite day of the year. It’s hard and messy and cramped. It will be over so fast that, in just a day, I’ll already be pining for next year

 

 

 

[1] These were the days, by and large, before microbrews, children.

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Closer

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the autumn of Joy Division cover bands. I’d seen one of them the night before, at a party house up behind the ballfield, around the corner from my Dad’s place. I’d drowsed on a sticky vinyl basement sofa of mid-century vintage, back in the days before vinyl midcentury sofas became a yuppie status symbol, and entertained myself by doodling on baby doll heads glued to the wall, while a reputed local drug dealer did a C-grade Ian Curtis impression. I was probably the least trashed person there, on account of having driven there alone, and I figured that explained  most of the discrepancy between my enjoyment of the band and everyone else’s enjoyment of the band, but looking back on it now, it’s probably because almost everyone else was already in some kind of Joy Division cover band and worried than any lack of enthusiasm detected by a competing local cover band would reflect badly on their own. Which was sort of the way Asheville worked in the early oughts. Everyone was equally supportive of everyone else’s creative endeavor out of both genuine empathy and a paralyzing fear of karmic retribution, which made it frankly impossible to know, in advance, whether anything was actually worth going to see.

I’d bowed out of the party during “She’s Lost Control” because I certainly hadn’t and I had a record review to edit before midnight deadline. I was not at all worried about karma on the record review front, because the publication I wrote for was based in Chicago, not Asheville, and maybe got more hits when I hated records, and I hated records rather grandiloquently in those days. So the editorial staff sent me either terrible bands or bands comprised of women (and often terrible bands comprised of women), probably because  I was a woman writing in an overwhelmingly male dominated area for  an overwhelmingly male audience and it’s safe to say they all  figured a woman would only ever voluntarily write about music if she were already accustomed to being despised.

My desk was in the dining room of the second best apartment I ever lived in. It had this elaborate balcony tricked out with oversized Corinthian columns and weird secret compartments, and a kettle warmer on the radiator and high windows that looked out over an intersection where I regularly watched low-level car accidents from my chair. I loved that apartment even though it was old and rundown. The plumbing didn’t always work and you’d blow a fuse on the whole building if you tried to make toast and coffee at the same time.  Untended vines grew through the windows in the back bedroom. And just about the only thing that made it fit for human habitation was the whimsical antique  architecture.  Our slumlord of a landlord made us sign waivers when we moved in to indicate we were aware of:

1) His plan to do nothing about the lead paint and asbestos

2)`The fact that the building was highly flammable

3) And we lived on a third floor accessible only by wooden staircases

4) So in the event of fire, we would almost certainly die horrible deaths

5) But we were cool with that because location, location, location.

My roommate sensibly balked at the outset. She threatened a rent strike the first month, after our landlord informed us we’d need to use a bucket to flush the toilet until he felt like paying a plumber. North Carolina law is not super-friendly to tenants, especially tenants of a good-old-boy slumlord who inherited all his property. I tried to explain this to my roommate before the landlord showed up and threatened to evict us. I remember he said, people don’t live here for the comfort and convenience; they live here for the charm, as whole sections of the Sunday NYT floated about the living room, borne upon the currents of the frigid draft. But the fact that my roommate argued anyway, unperturbed at the prospect of being suddenly homeless in January because of the principle of thing was one of the reasons I loved her. And I like to think the fact that I had zero intention of letting either one of us end up homeless in January is one of the reasons she loved me as well, even if she did get mad and accuse me of being a capitalist pawn from time to time. She was also, frankly, my best friend.

She was moving in a few weeks, back to the west coast from whence she’d come. I planned to stay on behind her for another six months or so, before moving further east and out of my hometown, I thought, for good.  I was sad about my roommate leaving and a little anxious about whatever choices I was and was not making about my future. In other circumstances, the situation might have been fraught. But I was twenty-five, barely two years out of a personal nadir, and it was November of 2001, where there were more things than just Joy Division cover bands to worry about– like George W. Bush and the War on Terror and  whether it was, strictly speaking, okay to enjoy that Strokes record as much as we all did.

I addressed this with my roommate the night after the party. I bought us a couple Taco Locos at the cheap Mexican restaurant with the sparkly waterfall fresco. I told her I would miss her. She told me she didn’t have much of a plan for what came next.  I confessed that my plan was similar, but, like, walking distance to several venues with decent rock shows.  We drank most of a bottle of wine we bought at the fancy corner market. She worried about leaving her boyfriend–a warm, smart, generous man who was impossible not to love. There might not be another like him. I worried about ever finding a boyfriend. Most of the guys I was into were caustic, self-obsessed know-it alls who were basically incapable of love and certainly incapable of loving me. The world seemed only too full of guys like that. We sat on our freezing porch, smoking cigarettes amid all-season Christmas lights and a downstairs neighbor plunking out perfectly imperfect Debussy.

Still, I must have been thinking about that Joy Division cover band when I finally went to bed, because I drifted in and out of chilly dreams about ice ages and radios and their black transmissions. I heard the kitchen door rattle closed and knew it was my roommate’s boyfriend, coming in late after a closing shift at the bar where he worked. I rolled back into sleep and came too sometime later out of a dream about England when I heard the toilet flush, then my bedroom door open, then bare feet over the floor and, after a moment, the squeak of the bedsprings as someone pitched onto the bed beside me.

I was pretty sure I was conscious, though not entirely. And I was just comfortable enough under the blankets that I didn’t want to move.  I thought it’s probably my roommate, even though my roommate had never crawled in bed with me before. I thought, her boyfriend is probably snoring, even though I didn’t think he did. Then I realized the person behind me was wearing very little. I remember thinking, is my roommate naked? Is she making a pass at me? Weird that it would happen now. We’d never discussed it. I wasn’t even sure she was into girls. But maybe she was emboldened by the fact she was leaving soon. Maybe she thought it would be a way to say goodbye. And sure, it was awkward, especially given the fact that I’m maybe, maybe, a soft two on the Kinsey scale and she’s not really my type and her boyfriend is in the other room. But fine. She didn’t seem aggressive. She probably thought she was being nice and I’ll just lie here until I figure out how to nicely tell her this isn’t a great idea. And then I felt a warm breath on my ear that reeked of alcohol and I tried to remember how much wine did we have that night, it occurred to me that the chin nestled into the hollow of my shoulder was quite a bit hairier than I remembered my roommate’s being and God, that’s awkward, I wonder if she’s having some sort of hormonal . . .

And suddenly I was wide awake.

My roommate’s boyfriend decidedly was not. He snored operatically as I wriggled out of the sheets, half panicked that he would wake and half wishing he would. I crept around the bed and out the far door—our apartment was a modified railroad style and my bedroom was the middle car—back into the dining room and then circled back through the kitchen to my roommate’s door.

As it turned out, she also snored. I knocked frantically. “Roommate[1],“ I said. “Roommate! Roommate! Please wake up. Get up. Wake up! Please wake up!”

 She groaned, finally, annoyed at having her sleep disrupted, and told me she didn’t care if the building was one fire.

“No,” I said “Your boyfriend is in my bed. And you need to get him out of my bed.” Which circumstances required me repeating a 7-8 more times until she roused

“Also,” I said, when she finally appeared, alert, at the door, “I think it’s possible that he’s a sleepwalker.”

I walked out into the living room and stood in front of the windows, half-watching for crashes, as I listened to the muffled conversation from my bedroom, you need to wake up, you’re in the wrong bed. No, I’m already in bed. But the wrong bed. No, I’m already in bed. You’re not in our bed. I’m already in bed, etc. which preceded in the same repetitive fashion as the one I’d just had with my roommate until her boyfriend came to sudden horrified consciousness and realized what had happened.  I heard him shuffle back to her bedroom in a flurry of  apology. After a moment, she reemerged and asked to bum a cigarette.

We sat on the sofa, and smoked, with the balcony door cracked, for a minute or two until I started laughing. And once I started laughing, I could not stop laughing and at that point, she was laughing too.

I left early the next morning to have breakfast with a friend, so it was hours later before my roommate’s boyfriend, much humbled, begged for my forgiveness. And it was so obviously a misunderstanding–and such an over-the top fluffy French bedroom farce of a misunderstanding for the dark-clothed cynics and self-identified intellectuals and smoke drenched music snobs we believed ourselves at the time— I couldn’t even pretend to hold it against him. I think I said something like, “Figure out the sleepwalking thing.”  And as far as I know, he did.

Three weeks later, my roommate moved back to the west coast. Six months later, her boyfriend followed. Not quite two years later, they were married.

I djed their wedding reception. I didn’t play any Joy Division. I played New Order, “Bizarre Love Triangle” to be exact.

It was a real crowd pleaser.

 

[1] Names have been have left out, not to protect the innocence but because we guilty must protect each other. Honor among thieves and all that.

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