Fashion Victim

In the summer of my thirteenth year, in the waning, anxious, chlorinated days between pirate camp and the eighth grade, I had a sleepover with Sunshine and we went to see “Dead Poets Society” at a pre-multiplex, twin theatre in a shopping center on the far western edged of my hometown. I loved it. I thought it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen, or at least the greatest movie I’d seen since “Say Anything,”[1]  at the very beginning of the summer.  Sunshine and I came out of the theatre with a crush on every boy, in spite or maybe because of the way their  square haircuts and over-enunciation and trembly Adam’s Apples were different from the slurring curtain-fringed skateboarders we largely went for in those days. We sat pining, on her parents’ gone-feral tennis court, chucking half-rotten small green apples at the backboard, and feeling what I thought were very grown-up feelings about young Ethan Hawke.

The zingy hormonal muddle of thirteen makes the business of desire extra-complicated, even if you aren’t the sort of girl that tends to confuse wanting someone for wanting to be like someone. And I think that’s why, when I went back to school shopping with my mother, I wanted blazers and buttoned up blouses, maybe even a tie—was I the kind of girl that could pull off a tie?[2] Mom thought all of this was ridiculous and that I was on a dangerous path toward fashion victim. Hadn’t I spent the previous years in shoulder pads and layered slouch socks with oversized bows in my over-sized, spiral-permed hair? Didn’t I know that I went to a public high school, where the only dress code was basically, shirt and shoes required, but if your shirt says Nazi Punks Fuck Off on it, you will have to turn it inside out? Hadn’t I noticed the popular kids just wore soccer shorts and Grateful Dead shirts every day? Wasn’t I inviting abuse?

Sure. But I managed to convince my grandmother to prep me out at a Benetton in Virginia. I started eighth grade with a wool blazer with a crest on the pocket, which I would instantly regret, as my unairconditioned junior high school exhibited both the metaphorical and physical attributes of actual Hell. I left my jacket in the library when I went  to cry in the bathroom after a popular stink-eye disinvited me to her Bat Mitzvah and the blazer immediately and irrevocably disappeared in much the same way as my new backpack a couple of days later. I realized that context matters. I could not will myself into being involved with Ethan Hawke any more than I could transcend space and time and gender to be Ethan Hawke. And it would be a while—about eighteen months to be exact—before I worked out that the thing I maybe, actually wanted most of all was residency in some misty, green idyll, where teenagers geeked out about poetry and Shakespeare in attractive duffel coats.

I was not alone, as it turned out. A not-small number of self-identified teenaged non-conformists saw “Dead Poets Society” in the Aquanet twilight of the hair bands and, in some collective delusion and utter misunderstanding of the film, yearned for minimum security, scenic incarceration at institutions full of students with Christian names that sounded like neighborhoods I could never afford to live in. And after a lot of negotiating and drama and process, I managed to matriculate as a day student at the local version, which surprisingly ended up being just behind a furry scrim of pines, across the street from the shopping center twin theatre on the far western side of my hometown.

The days before classes started, in between field hockey practice and “Sassy” magazine, I studied the student handbook and the particulars of the dress code with mounting alarm. The boys’ dress code was clear—coats and ties, square haircuts– much the same as it had been since time immemorial. The girls’ dress code? It seemed, and in fact turned out to be, a vague, arbitrary work in progress, slapdashed into place when the school went coed and never really codified since.[3]

I was at a loss. It had been a while since I’d considered wearing anything other than some combination of footless tights and  faded black, so I could sit at lunch with whatever subculture would have me, without necessarily having to declare my allegiance to one in particular. The only blazer I owned was a red velvet one, purloined from the community theatre’s costume department (sorry), during the week and a half I entertained the notion that I might be a goth.

I dug through the mail for a J Crew catalog and went through dog-earing pages. In theory, I was dressing myself, but in actually I was dressing this impossible version of myself, some thin, lithe, lightly freckled, girl with long strawberry blonde hair and a straight-up Kennedy smile. The sort of girl that might cling to a sailboat rope, skin golden tanned against a navy miniskirt (Midnight, Cotton Twill, $79) and a slim fit button-down Oxford (100% Cotton, $62) in the same unblemished, WASPy white as her perfect teeth. When I presented the pages to my mother, she sort of rolled her eyes, like, you are way over budget, my friend which helpfully distracted me from the fact that J Crew didn’t make flattering, slim- fit, button down Oxford shirts for pudgy, pimply, pre-growth spurt adolescents, with the pumpkin colored remains of a drug store dye job and an unflattering too short haircut self-administered about six weeks previous that Mom’s hairdresser Donella had recently tried to shape into something cute and feminine ala Demi Moore in “Ghost” but it had, due to a preponderance of cowlicks and the innate cruelty of the universe, come out looking somewhat more like  Ethan Hawke  in “Dead Poet’s Society,” had Ethan Hawke been a fifteen old girl inclined toward novelty earrings and black tent dresses.

I wore the only new outfit I liked. A white blouse with buttons. A rose-colored skirt. I filed into convocation in the mumbling herd of boys in blue blazers and girls in floral prints and seersucker, secretly sure I was the fattest, ugliest, most grotesque creature among them, but at least outwardly confident that my clothes might pass muster. The Dean of Students made eye-contact with me. I smiled, weakly. And she pulled me out of the line, cited for a blouse with a wrinkled collar, and told me I’d have to change clothes before I could go to class.

I didn’t have any close friends on campus yet–I had no friends anywhere that wore my size–so I was quarantined to the silent, empty infirmary to wait for my mother to leave work, drive home and then back across town with something more appropriate to wear.  Mom brought me an old jumper of mine from middle school,  red tartan flannel worn to nubs and three years out of style. It made me look like a sad child.

The next day,  I tried a more conservative blouse. A longer skirt. Again, at convocation, I was pulled from the line by the Dean. She made a fuss, told me my hem was askew, I looked like a slob, awarded me detention, and told me  I’d have to change clothes.

I returned to the infirmary. My mother got there about an hour and a half later. I missed almost two class periods. She was annoyed with me and annoyed with the school. She brought me some of her own clothes. In those days Mom was about seven inches taller than I was, so her red dress hung to my ankles, making me look a bit like a sassy Mennonite or a Handmaid with shoulder pads. We have to figure this out. She said,  I can’t do this every day.

 By day three, I wore the closest thing I had to a sack. I passed inspection barely, but was cited for dress code almost every other day of the first week. I was even pulled aside at the Square Dance on Friday night. The Dean looked at my blouse– plaid, oversized, literally the same one worn by six other girls–and said, that shirt looks like a rag. It’s see-thru, unwrinkled. I’m only letting this slide because this is not a classroom dress day. 

 I walked away ashamed, infuriated like, just give me a fucking uniform. I’d rather wear a goddamn uniform than have to deal with your bullshit and somehow ended up on the sidelines with the congenial Swiss student I sat beside in convocation because our last names were alphabetical. He asked how my classes were going. I shied away because I already felt like a shabby, ignorant yokel with the wrong clothes and the wrong hair and the wrong everything and I knew talking to a European, even a sweet, sort of goofy European would just make it worse.

I went home angry with the Dean and annoyed with myself for having the unearned audacity to imagine that I might ever belong at the misty green idyll full of clever students with names like fancy neighborhoods. I clearly wasn’t rich enough or attractive enough or smart enough.. I was coming home to a three-bedroom rancher in a middle-class neighborhood and a single mom who could not afford to back to school shop for me out of the J Crew catalog even if they carried my size, which they didn’t so whatever.  I was doomed by my physiology and genetics and social class to appear some trashy, disgraced louche even at my most buttoned-up, which was ironic because I was still mostly flat-chested at fifteen, without even the curves that would make tidy cardigans and button ups look trashy in an appealingly slutty way. I stared at my bedroom mirror and saw some horrific sexless thing composed entirely of zits and chins. I thought, I should drop out. I thought, maybe I should just go back to public school and become a goth.

 I called Irish Name, my oldest and closest remaining friend at public school, and listened to her talk about plans for football games and parties with people who didn’t like me. She talked about who was rushing the sorority and who had maybe crossed third base over in the parking lot of the Community College across the street from the high school. She asked me how I was, and I wanted to say something like, remember how simple it was when I only felt inferior because I was fat and unpopular? Well now I feel inferior because I’m fat and unpopular and also unpolished and maybe stupid and my clothes are all wrong, and did I mention that I’ve also discovered class rage? Because holy shit, that’s a real deal. I mean, for-fucking-serious.

But I didn’t say that because, among other things, Irish Name had taken a shine to youth group and Mission Trips and had lost her appetite for cursing, so I told her the new school was awesome and I was awesome. I don’t think she believed me, but she was nice enough to let it go.

I had a new blouse to wear on Monday. I went down to the basement and I ironed it. I tucked it in to a plaid pencil skirt that made me look like a Sunday School Teacher. I wore it with a stiff black blazer that still smelled like fabric sizing and the clearance rack at TJ Maxx.

At convocation, a senior announced an opportunity for actors to do Shakespeare for a local fundraiser. Interested parties should meet afterward in the courtyard. It was the kind of thing I would never do in my old life. I almost turned to the Swiss guy and said, that’s the kind of thing I would have never done at my old school. I turned it over in my head over and over again and suddenly I was thirteen and watching “Dead Poets Society” and like, wasn’t this kind of thing the reason I’d gone to this place to begin with?

I didn’t give myself too long to think about it. I slid out the exit door between students. I passed the dean. She caught my eye and pursed her lips. I could feel it coming. I tried to will away Seriously? Again?  and the sting of embarrassing tears, because how many times? How many fucking times? How could I not fit in? And here was this thing I was actually on my way to go do. I was actually going to go and do a thing. A thing I really wanted to do. I braced myself. I swallowed. I stood up straight.

The dean’s gaze, for once, focused on some other violation, some other girl with a wrinkled collar, some other girl with a ratty hem. She sighed and raised her hand.

She let me go.

___________

[1] 1989 was a great year to be a thirteen-year-old going to the movies, even if  either of those films has entirely held up. I’d be hard-pressed to say which one I like better as an adult (my gut says “Say Anything” because Lili Taylor and The Replacements).

[2] No.

[3] That deliberate vagueness ended up being a real boon, so long as you figured out how to work the angles. My angle ended up being vintage dress with thrift store sweater and black tights, and that would form the basis of my non-summer wardrobe with minimal adjustment up until and including roughly now. But that was really more of a product of senior year, by which time there was a new dean.

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Relics

Nana had a pink and green velvet brocade wingback chair in the back corner of her antique shop. It never sold, probably because it looked like something that would be in an illustration in a children’s book. Some curved and tuffeted throne, the color of blush peonies and spring moss, Ugly Stepsister style overkill, where Cinderella might have raised her dingy, work-sore foot, likely calloused by clogs and still blistered from a night spent dancing in shoes made of glass, to a princes with a magic slipper (and possibly a foot fetish). I loved it. Poppy, my grandfather, called it Alison’s office, because I’d sit there all day and read.  The chair was situated in front of a Ficus, which was situated in front of a louvered door that contained the shop furnace, blocking the unsightly present so the customers could be lulled into the opulent artifice of two-hundred-year-old inlaid mahogany tables, viney sterling candelabras, delicate chests shaped like ovals and beans, and floors softened by thick Persian rugs in gem-like colors. The idea was that maybe they  not notice they were in an ersatz log cabin, a model home for a never-built Daniel Boone themed development that never materialized,  alongside a divided highway in Southwest Virginia, across the road from a tattoo parlor, just down the block from a gun shop, next door to an exterminator with a upside down Volkswagen Beatle out front, impaled by a giant arrow printed with the company tagline we kill bugs dead.           

They usually didn’t.

I spent a bit of most summers, aged ten to seventeen, with Nana. I went to work with her daily at the shop. In the beginning, before my grandfather, Poppy, died, I had no chores save feather dusting and plant watering. Mostly I drew paper dolls and read stacks of Young Adult novels I was already growing out of because I read them too fast. Later came actual work. I waxed table tops. I polished silver. I made sales. I chatted up ladies with Tidewater accents and Christian names like Hyacinth and Glovinia while they made out checks to my grandmother with diamond-burdened hands. Nana would smile and slide the money into the drawer. I’d attach a SOLD tag to a Rare Library Desk, Walnut, Leather Topped, English Cabinetmaker, after Chippendale, 1780.

Before Poppy died, he added lamp repair to an already-extensive list of Things He Could Do with the notion that he could spend his post-retirement days refurbishing old lamps and creating new ones as sideline to the antique business. He bought a diamond drill, a piece of equipment he bragged about, and with which he could create lamps out of otherwise rare and valuable objects. Nana fitted out his workshop, as well as two display rooms for fluted silk shades of various sizes and pastel hues, carved rosewood bases, racks of harps and tiered racks of fancy finials that resembled fancy candies.

Antique stores, especially antique stories on the side of a highway in Southwest Virginia are often  a muddle of junk, a small step above flea market, where you might find a  primitive pie-safe painted distressed red or a couple of pieces of Depression glass amidst kitsch figurines, porcelain dolls, confederate money, and old Esso signs. This was not Nana’s  shop, which confused and sometimes frustrated the occasional hirsute good-old-boy looking for old guns and fetish collectibles of dubious reputation . Nana was snobbish about her inventory.  She operated out of the particular type of general and uncompromising elitism common (heh)  to those that come from nothing to speak of and nowhere to celebrate.   She didn’t care if customers found her haughty or high-handed( she probably took it as a compliment). She’d say, this is a George II highboy, once owned by a colonial governor of Maryland. It’s in impeccable condition. I outbid two museums to get it at auction. It is a magnificent piece. She wouldn’t say, do you think someone with this George II highboy would ever condescend to handling something so distasteful as a WWII German army helmet or a teapot shaped like a mammy doll?

Which is not to say I couldn’t find the occasional piece of kitsch or niche item tucked amid the glittering detritus of the ruling class. She sold her manicurist’s cranberry-scented potpourri for a while, which smelled exactly like the cosmetics department at Lord & Taylor hopped up on Sea Breezes. And for a while, in an ancient iron and wooden barrel by the door she had a couple of swords mixed in with her umbrella. She claimed she didn’t know where they came from, but I didn’t believe her. When I was about fifteen, I spent an hour or so alone in the store while Nana having hair set, trying in vain to unsheathe the sword in one graceful swoop, like a proper swashbuckler.

All antique dealers are some combination of con artist and curator. They acquire old things and try to convince customers they have great value, often based on some  sideways association or ineffable quality. Their level of success often depends on how sincerely they believed their own stories. Nana whole-heartedly believed in the magical and transformative properties of things. She defined herself by them, which perhaps made her appear selfish, petty, unnecessarily materialist. But I always thought it was something else. She was an acolyte of fancy objects. I sometimes think it was a shame she came up a coal miner’s daughter, in a rural corner of the state, raised in a faith without icons, totems, reliquaries, and shrines, exquisite doo-dads and mysterious whatsits that she could have worshipped without apology. As it is, she created her own peculiar belief system and invited us to revere the  Imari charger, tend to the Regency tea service, and contemplate the unknowable before this grand, three-century-old Phoenix-festooned mirror.

***

Poppy spent his professional life doing the financials for a big lumber company that had worked on a couple of historic renovations. His time there left reserves of knowledge, a sense of how to date a thing by the quality of the wood, a whole glossary of terms—joints, bevels, escutcheons, cut-nails.  How some cabinetmakers would insert a pine peg into a cherry joint because they liked the colors. How others would inlay images as signatures. This is a Philadelphia piece. You can tell by the halfmoons. It came from Mr. So and So’s workshop. The way things were slatted together with wooden nails.  He could always find the secret compartments. The hidden latches. You can date a chest by looking at its drawers. 

There’s a particular charm to the tactile business of antiques. The tiny imperfections. The gully where the blacksmith hit too hard.  The dribble of extra paint on the porcelain. The slightly misshapen filigree on the silver pitcher. A real person made those. I would close my eyes and the moment of creation—the infernal heat of the forge, the delicate brushes in morning light, the precise tools to create the veins in that copper leaf. And then you think about who it was for? A commission? A gift? A little extra artistry on something practical? What harm in making this chair beautiful?  Or sometimes what harm was caused by making this chair beautiful?

I  grew up around old things.  I fidgeted on the crewelwork cushions of Rococo chairs. I pretended orb-topped andirons were robots and talked to them. I hid under gate-leg tables. I trundled along with Nana in the back of her old  red buying van to dusty shops, estate sales, old barns and stately homes throughout Virginia and the Carolinas (and later to England). While she haggled with cash-strapped and feckless heirs who didn’t know or care what they had, I chased animals through formal dining rooms and dusty attics and peculiar outbuildings. I poked around fancy drapes in hopes of shaking out a ghost.  I had plenty of questions, like, how do you pee in a hoop skirt or did George Washington have really bad breath or seriously you guys never had a single, solitary reservation about slavery? Sometimes I’d find a taxidermied pheasant looking eternally surprised to be living under a bubble of glass. Sometimes I’d find a lily clogged gold fish pond or a feral peacock on a rust-stained yellow woven chaise on a weedy terrace just down the road and over the hill from Monticello.

The only thing that ever really upset me was a pentimento, discovered after Nana bought this painting, a 19th century landscape, some sub-Hudson River School type thing, but painted on a reused canvas over a hunting party with men and dogs and a ghostly galleon of a forest moon. Slowly that scene beneath—all its dogs and rifles and torches—was, with time, emerging from the under the innocuous, alpine pastoral dawn, becoming more visible, first as shadows, then as limbs scratching to the surface, a past that could not be painted over, some hungry, bloodthirsty history that could not be painted over into blue skies and peaceful valleys, that would not stay quiet beneath the surface, that lived on under a thin coat of paint. Years later, a therapist asked if I had any recurrent nightmares. I mentioned the pentimento. And she was like, what a metaphor. And I was like, goddamn, the south. And she was like, goddamn, America. And we sat there on the verge of goddamning the whole world but we stopped because she had other clients and I was on the clock.

I suspect places have memories. I don’t mean this in some woo-woo way.  Maybe I do. After all,  I grew up in the South and went abroad when I was still young enough to speak to stones in ruined castles and imagine they might respond if I asked politely. As recently as two weeks ago, I turned off a mossy, lowcountry highway down a tunnel-treed gravel drive on John’s Island in South Carolina and was like, shush your talking, because the past felt so clamorous.  So it stands to reason things have a touch of memory too. I’ve yet to hear a lowboy whisper to me, but that might be because I wasn’t listening hard enough.

***

I spent most of the  summer of my seventeenth year, the last summer I would spend with Nana for weeks at a time, tending to the store, going to the funerals of aging relatives I’d never met until the open casket, and reading Faulkner novels, one after another, like an adventure series, while I sat in that pink and green chair. I wallowed in the filthy past, surrounded by the perfect sparkle and  polish of Nana’s version of history and thought, maybe not for the first time, that I might be genetically predisposed to hang on to things long past their usefulness, and maybe that’s not always a mark in the asset column.

I live in a small house. I have limited space. The things I cherish are the things I cherish for my own reasons. Some may be worth something.  Most have little value at all save to me. Sometimes something kinda priceless shatters at a party and we move on. Sometimes I lose a pebble I slipped in my pocket on Palatine Hill in Rome and worry over it for days.  I’m pretty good at getting rid of things if I need to. I take decent care of the things I have.

There are fewer stores like Nana’s now. We’re all obsessed with the new or at least the retro version of new.  My friends’ houses are full of mid-century modern furniture, some vintage, mostly ersatz. Nana sniffed at reproduction, though she had friends that made it, who hand built solid wood Windsor Chairs and butler’s tables and such with loving precision and original tools. She’d put a few in her shop.  Because you’re not actually going to put your television on a real-deal Jacobean chest, dig?  I can’t imagine how Nana would view a midcentury reproduction. I’d call and ask, but she can’t figure out Skype and it’s hard to convey an eyeroll over the phone.

We were in a shop, not unlike hers, a few years  back, when she was still had the ability to wander through rooms at length and negotiate a better deal on a reticulated Rose Medallion bowl (Qing Dynasty, c. 1850). The store’s owners had  filled their downstairs with straight-up 1955.  Nana made a career of treating anything newer than 1850 as not really an antique and she was befuddled by the Eames chairs, the space age clocks, the chrome lamps, the Formica kitchen table why would you carry this here? At an antique shop? The owner shrugged, no one’s buying the old stuff anymore. Young people with money. This is what they want. Nana was horrified. I tried to be all, you know, styles change. But she would have none of it. She had spent most of her adult life banishing its like from her home, erasing the cheap, the common, the JC Penney easy chairs, the dime store glasses, the mass produced and practical, with the fragile, gilded vestiges of an aristocratic lineage that was not her own. Why would anyone want to evoke Levittown when they could have a little piece of Versailles?

Why indeed?

I mean, I live in an old mill house, not a chateau. My ceilings aren’t high enough for chandeliers. I have my old thrift store furniture, alongside the stuff from Nana, alongside cheap, particle board bookshelves and discount “oriental-style” rugs I bought at box stores.  The old stuff is hard to take care of. It’s not terribly comfortable. You look at those gorgeous, spindly ballroom chairs and think, that might have balanced a tiny duchess in 1780, even a tiny duchess weighted down by wigs and whalebone and preposterously wide skirts. But it can only endure so many of us portly, 21st century plebs in athleisure, with our wide backsides and habit of flopping into any chair like it’s a bean bag in a basement rec room. No one wants to be the one that breaks the relic. No one is even entire sure how it could be fixed, or if it could be fixed, or if it would even be worth it to fix it.  Thus, the chairs get stacked against the wall, in the room you’re not really supposed to go into, look don’t touch, beside the secretary with the damaged back and the chipped crystal and sterling and china engineered to be hand-washed by a legion of servants in a house with a name and two stairways.

Sometimes its simpler to love a thing when it’s too young to have any complicated history.

 I don’t know what happened to the pink and green chair when Nana sold the shop. I probably would have taken it, had it been on offer,  even though it didn’t go with anything in my life at the time, and would have been devastated by pets, parties, and the various destructive amusements of my twenties and early thirties. It didn’t come to me, though. Maybe it went to an auction or estate sale. Maybe someone reupholstered it in  tasteful grayscale linen to make it a better fit in for a modern living room. But perhaps it is much the same, still lulling  some other small person into believing that history is an gorgeous, anodyne proposition, as she reads her swashbuckly novels and settles into the down cushion for a sweet dream of another age no truer than the tale a canny antique dealer is trying to sell you at a 200% mark-up, but, in the moment, almost wholly convincing.

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Burn Out

My father’s father’s family, from whom I derive both my last and middle names, came from a speck on the map in the Mississippi Delta called Anguilla. The Fields of yore lived in a large brick house there and grew untold acres of cotton and both initiated and endured at least some of the Delta’s most shameful history and/or hoariest clichés and endured the malarial torpor of the Deep South, pre-air-conditioning. Generations of Fields, up to and including my great-grandfather, would live out the summer alone in the big house, to see to the fields and the gin (and, given genetics, probably also the Gin, black market or bootleg thought it may have been in the 20s) and survive the various floods and storms  and get up to whatever trouble they got up to there in verdant nowhere at peak sultry.

I’ve visited and lived in the lowland south for enough of my life now to understand why summer heat is both character and plot point in many pieces of southern literature. And I think I have some handle on it. I used to stand in the record store (which did not have functional air conditioning) in a couple inches of water (which appeared whenever it rained harder than a sprinkle) and think of my great- grandfather (who I never met, who died during the Depression) standing at the house in Anguilla in the dead smother of August heat, waiting to see if the storm-swelled tributaries of the Mississippi would breach the levees and flood the fields, the lawn, the first floor of the house. I used to think, What is it about Fieldses and their inexorable attraction toward hot, wet places? Is this a congenital thing? Were we into pain or martyrdom or just some kind of stiff-lipped determination to spite nature by making it work in a place where nature was like, you people should have stayed in the North of England. Could I trace this all the way back three centuries to the first Fields who stepped off a ship from England and stared down July in Tidewater Virginia all bring it, New World, I’m staying. And, in fact, my descendants will one day go somewhere even wetter and hotter and further south. So I’d Wet Vac the store and sweat through gallons of water and raise my eyebrows at the pitiful constitution of customers that complained about the heat and the water, just as I’d indulged relocated friends. I’d think, this is not so bad. Wait until a hurricane knocks out power for a week in August. That’ll toughen you right up.

So, look, it humbles me to tell you that I listened with tears in my eyes when my HVAC repairman told me it could be another few days before I have my AC back in my house in Carrboro, after a lightning strike last Thursday took out the motherboard. And, guys, I can’t. Not when there are any other options. Not when the high today is 92. Not when the interior temperature of my house last night at midnight was 86. So I’m packing up to drive into the mountains of Western North Carolina, to my mother’s house, on the outskirts of Asheville, near the French Broad River, where I can write at a desk, still dry and unpuddled by my own sweat.

I suppose I should feel better, recalling that Mamaw, my great-grandmother, the most formidable woman I’ve ever known, a woman who pulled her family through the Depression, who rebuilt a local economy because one family can never really thrive if the rest of the community fails, a woman who weathered an epic catalog of life-altering storms (both real and figurative) before she was forty and famously told my mother Fields women never cry on her wedding night. That woman? She packed up her four children as soon as the icebox-chilled bed sheets stopped warding off the drowning heat of the nighttime and took the train northeast to the mountains of Western North Carolina, to the outskirts of Asheville, where her own parents ran an inn on the Swannanoa River, and she (and her children) could while away the days in a cool green idyll of a season that didn’t feel weaponized.

I have to remind myself that it’s rational to seek relief, that life is thick with opportunities to experience unmitigated, unavoidable discomfort, that I don’t win extra points for melting into my sheets at night because I’m too stubborn and too ashamed to seek out a cooler place to lay my head, and even that big house in Mississippi has, by now, had air conditioning for decades. And still no one really wants to live there.

Heat: 1
Alison: 0

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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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The Wasteland

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

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

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

ii.

Remember peak oil?

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

iii.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv.

It was a weird time.

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

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

 v.

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

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

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

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

I did.

vi.

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

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

 vii.

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

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

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

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

viii.

Remember peak oil?

Remember 2006?

Remember those nights at the bar that went on forever?

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

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

ix.

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

Then I packed and flew to Venice.

It was the best day.

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

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

x.

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

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

xi.

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

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

xii.

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

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

___________________

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

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

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

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Home Movies

I spent most of my childhood under the impression that my immediate family was, if not quite desperately poor, then just steps away from abject destitution  Even though, we had a nice house, in an ostensibly nice neighborhood, with plenty of food and clothes and toys and vacations. Even though my parents were both employed and reasonably well-paid. Even though, all the grandparents (six, at the time, via remarriages) were all comfortable and reasonably generous with their gifts. The party line at home was that we had no money at all. We were barely getting by. My parents carped about bills and worried about the future. My mother would suggest that we might one day not have enough money to eat. My father told me I should probably get used to the idea of one day living under an overpass.

The most pervasive worry seemed to be my mother’s concern that that any day my father might quit his full-time job as Creative Director at an advertising agency, move us all into a shack on Wrightsville Beach, and write a novel, while we dug starvation rations of periwinkles and crabs out of the tidal pools. To prepare for what I believed to be an inevitability, I spent my youth reading about precipitous declines in family fortunes. I all but memorized the section of A Little Princess, in which Sara Crewe was trundled off into the garret and forced to wear last season’s black dresses and socialize with rodents. Honestly, I thought Mom’s scenario didn’t sound so bad. I liked the beach and seafood and lord, I was born ready to not live in the mountains.  I wondered would I be able to swim in the ocean every day? And could we also have, like, flounder or would it just be crabs and periwinkles? what would the shack be like?

Mom would give me some long look and say, the kind of shack that doesn’t stay up during hurricane season. And then where will be? Probably the poor house

I was unclear on the Poor House, too. Was that also near Wilmington? Would it be like the Work House in “Oliver!” Would I have to wear brown in the poor house? There was a lot of brown happening in “Oliver!”  I didn’t really care for brown clothes. If Dad finished his novel, would we then be able to leave the Poor House? And if it was successful maybe move to a cool, cosmopolitan city that had, like, an Orange Julius and a Benetton at the mall.

But even if Dad didn’t quit his job[1] and make us live in a shack, evidence of my impoverished lifestyle was everywhere I turned.  Our house was old and though my mother and grandmother did in their power to indoctrinate me into the cult of fragile 18th  century furniture, heritage beds you absolutely cannot jump on ever, and antique Japanese porcelain I fretted endlessly about breaking, all I could see was that our house lacked a rec room with a ping pong table. We  also didn’t have a trampoline or any Big Wheels. We didn’t go on family trips to theme parks or to Chuck E. Cheese. We didn’t have a minivan. Or a basketball hoop. Mom never bought Cheese Balls or Pudding Pops. It took years of begging to get a swing set. And we didn’t have a video camera at all

No video camera meant that no one could record my piano recital, or play performance  or middle school slumber party lip synch contests, which meant we could never rewind to see if Susan flubbed the second verse of “You Be Illin.[2] It meant that within the largely white and upper middle class cohort of kids tracked through the honors program at my otherwise largely black and lower middle class middle school, I would forever be operating at a disadvantage because I was never able to film a skit for a school project the way the other kids did.

This last part was worse. It hardly seemed fair that the Triple Threats (rich, smart, athletic) easily aced projects while I struggled to get a B+ just because their parents would film their earnest reenactment of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the downstairs rec-room or direct their pyrotechnics enhanced demonstration of the Big Bang Theory on the Asheville Country Club Golf Course.

I would try to explain to Mom. In order to do well on this book report, you need to pick up four or five of my closest friends, drive us to a scenic location, costume us in period appropriate costumes, film it and then probably take us to Boston Pizza for dinner before you drop all of my friends off

My mother looked at me as if I were delusional. Didn’t I know she had to work, then sit at a city council meeting, and follow that up with a dinner part for a visiting Scandinavian urban planner. And what does a video camera have to do with a book report? This was a stupid question. You couldn’t do a clever skit about “To Kill a Mockingbird” without film and you couldn’t film it without a video camera. It was no use for her to try and belabor the point by suggesting I do something so outré as WRITE a book report. For the love of God, I was in the Gifted Classes. A simple paper would never pass muster, not when the Triple Threats were collaborating with Duke students they met at a summer program to clone Boo Radley using a chemistry set, some Sea Monkey eggs, and a shortwave kit they brought home from Space Camp. My seventh grade English teacher already didn’t like me, and as she liked to remind me, I was never going to get into college, let alone Harvard, if I didn’t step up my game. And my game required, at minimum, a video camera. ANY video camera. Even one that only took Betamax tapes like the Murphys had.

Mom would listen, patiently, give me a long slow look and suggest that I talk to Dad. Which meant I’d end up wandering through his creative department on the weekend sans camera, seeking out the tools to elevate my poster board projects and dumb haikus, (in the pre-computerized days of the advertising industry, this mostly meant magic markers and a potentially brain-damaging fog of Spray-Mount). I’d come out  with maybe a B+

And it wasn’t just school. I worried about the future. I worried we will have nothing to prove our existence to future generations if there is no video of my 11th birthday party at Pizza Hut, but the parents would point out (correctly) that we had an embarrassment of snapshots. Dad was an enthusiastic and talented amateur photographer, even if his go-to photo of me always captured me from all the worst angles, slumped and highly-double chinned, staring moodily off into the great beyond, probably wondering why Wrightsville Beach? Why not Topsail? Why not Emerald Isle?

Of course, the shack thing never happened. Neither did the video camera. However, there two times in which my mother drove up to Videoland and rented a camera for the evening and I had a sliver of filmed childhood.

The first of these was a  full-album’s length sing-along and dance revue to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. I was eleven; my sister was six. I imagined myself in possession of Broadway-level vocal chops and jaw-dropping dance moves, ala “Fame” and “Flashdance.” I’d also recently come into possession of a head-to-toe Esprit ensemble of lavender jersey in various patterns (polka dots, stripes, etc.), which I thought made me look like a real talent. My sister had coincidentally developed a deep-seated love of denim mini-skirts, sheer knee-high stockings, and plastic bangle bracelets. She availed herself of roughly half the contents of a blue eyeshadow contact, found in the depths of mom’s dressing table, and tied a bandana at garter height on her thigh.

As farce, the “Dirty Dancing” revue was an unqualified success. What my careful choreography lacked in technique and physical prowess, it more than made up for in extensive, mishandled props and gratuitous (if unintentional) flashes of my underwear . My sister positioned herself about two feet away from the camera. She swayed and gyrated and slunk about living room like an alcoholic stripper, occasionally thwacking herself in the head with her own hand in the heat of passion. Between my panties and her sexy dance, the end result is both hilarious, and slightly uncomfortable. Caddy Compson meets Dolores Haze meets “Dance Fever” with dance moves cribbed from “Jane Fonda’s New Workout.”

At the time, however, I thought it was a miserable failure, spoiled by my sister’s relentless camera hogging and my horror at how fat I looked on camera. We hid it away in a drawer with movies we taped off HBO but would never watch again (“White Nights?”). I rediscovered it about fifteen years ago, after my sister revealed it had been popular favorite in her college dorm room. She’d secreted it away in her early adolescence, fearing it would disappear into a junk drawer and subsequently become junk. I have it now, stored in a filing cabinet. Because I think I’m the only member of the family to still own a VHS player (albeit collecting dust in a closet).

What’s particularly funny is that “Dirty Dancing” is not even our favorite home video. That would be the second, and the only time my plea for a filmed school project ever hit the mark. I don’t know why I chose to deliver a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity fake-crying in a terrible German accent, wearing a head scarf and a nightgown, with a pillow underneath to simulate pregnancy, but I did. I might have had something to do with the fact that I was trying to show off by giving a nod to Brecht, a nod, I might add, lost entirely on my eighth grade General Science teacher. (I think you can do better, Alison. You’re a bright student, but you don’t go the distance. I mean look at that video the Triple Threats brought of their combined family trip to the particle accelerator and the two dozed, red velvet electron cupcakes they brought to share with the class. That’s the kind of quality work I expect from a student in the Gifted Program. B-)[3]

Afterwards there was still plenty of battery left and room on the tape, so my Dad filmed my little sister, then eight, as she tried to hawk the baby bunnies her pet rabbits would not actually end up having. She was the consummate saleswoman, still over-accessorized and blue eyeshadowed, and wearing a Meet Me at the Mall t-shirt, just so you’d know it was still 1989. Afterwards, my father talked to the dog for a while from behind the camera, in a kind of congenial drawling monologue hey girl, hey buddy, hey are you my buddy, yeah, you’re my buddy my sister and I can (and will) recite verbatim

The last half-hour is made up of a walk down to the lake in my childhood neighborhood. My mother forgot the camera was on, so all our progress is recorded in nausea-inducing detail, as well as a scene when my sister ran into the meadow past the boathouse  on the edge of Beaver Lake, and then, reported to the camera: “I’m Sara, and I love to run” while my mother and I quibbled gently over dinner plans. I wanted tacos. Mom wanted spaghetti.

My sister and I watched that video obsessively after the fact, maybe because it funny, but maybe also because it was shot about a month before my parents announced their divorce, about two months before my father moved out of the house, about three months before my grandfather died, and about a year and half before we moved out of that house, and set in motion a series of events I couldn’t have possible predicted as I walked back from Beaver Lake and turned up my nose at the suggestion of pasta for dinner. I don’t know what happened to that tape. Somehow it fell through the cracks. It disappeared.

My family acted well in front of a camera because it was rare for us to have one. Sometimes I still wish we had a few more films.  Other people can reminisce with sound and pictures. They can sit back and watch their hyperactive holiday mornings and senile grandmothers on holiday. My friends can’t imagine my parents being married, or our house on Westwood Road. I still lack the language to give them a solid picture of what it was like there  on the good nights, with the four of us together, when my parents still seemed to be totally in love with each other, even if they were complaining about money or envisioning romantic penury on the North Carolina coast in the service of the novel that never did get written.

It was only ever an illusion, and I know that. But it was a really good one.

___________________

[1] He didn’t

[2] She totally did.

[3] Obvious hyperbole. But barely.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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Washed Up

The winter of 2010 had been a dawdling, long-haired mope that rippled through oversized scarves and rattled the chains of the playground swings, where I spent the morning of my thirty-fourth listening to terrible love songs and letting cold, bright, blustery February elevate my shitty malaise into something that felt heroic. I was, I thought, a failure, a particularly lonely failure, remarkable only in how unremarkable my plight was. I tried to fix it with long runs and whiskey, which I’d taken to drinking to keep me from wanting to smoke cigarettes, which I’d quit some four months previous, which I’d managed with the chemical assistance of anti-depressants, which my doctor kept refilling because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

The depression I felt I didn’t even want to dignify by calling it depression. On paper, I wasn’t even in a particularly bad place, just a place I couldn’t afford without a roommate. Mine—my favorite, my best friend—had decamped to Brooklyn the summer previous. We’d lived together for almost seven years. Nearly of which on a tree-lined, dead end street, one block from our favorite bar, two from the nightclub, half a mile from the record store, a mile from the university. Our best friends lived across the street. We spent nights under shade trees, talking until midnight, throwing extravagant parties. The house was an eternal drop-by, an endlessly fascinating conversation about everything and nothing in particular.

College towns are, by nature, transient places. It had maybe, sort of, occurred to me that my roommate and my friends might be merely passing through as well, and that their  paths would only briefly converge in the 200 block of Maple Avenue. But it took them actually leaving for me to get it, and another three solid seasons afterwards for me to figure out that they weren’t coming back.

I had  gone to visit my old roommate in New York on a snowy weekend. We’d trundled around Brooklyn, damp with weather. She was living in a place in Greenpoint, kind of a dump, but with one of those rooftop views that can cause you to confuse real estate with poetry, even when you haven’t been stung to tears by the cold wind off the East River and laid bare by a couple hours of immoderate Irish whiskey consumption at a bar full of Williamsburg douchebags. She tried to explain that what we were looking at was the fantasy and the tenement the reality, but lord, if it didn’t feel romantic as fuck.   This was my best friend’s life now and she was living it and even though it was irrational, it didn’t seem fair because seriously wasn’t I the one who was always supposed to end up in New York?

It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

By early May, I was dead broke, sleepless, writer’s blocked, and plagued with a nervous stomach, which I decided to blame on meds. I tossed the pills in the bathroom drawer with the extra Band-Aids. I fretted over my credit card bills. I stared at thousands upon thousands of words of unfinished[1] projects, projects I knew had clear and precise endings, but instead rewrote the beginning of a love story about New York or maybe to New York about sixty-eight times. No matter how many times I wrote it, it was still cliché and I was still in a house in North Carolina, unsure if, like, I actually wanted to move to New York.  I couldn’t figure whether even thinking about the possibility was proactive or self-destructive. Was it possible for a thing to be both?

A friend’s former roommate called, out of the blue, one afternoon while I was counting quarters and trying to shake the pall of fourth day leftover curry and impending financial ruin. She needed a place to live and followed a hunch that I be desperate enough to consider letting her rent my spare room. I said sure. We negotiated a deal. She’d move in a few days shy of the first of June.

When I told my mother I’d found a roommate, she rejoiced, convinced an occupied second bedroom would alleviate, if not all, then most of my problems. New roommate was a working artist and a good one. Mom thought my proximity to someone else doing creative work might inspire me to pick a file on the hard drive and just finish it, damnit.[2] She also thought I should come with her to Pensacola for four or five days the next week. My stepfather had recently started working on a project down there. We’d have hotel rooms—nice ones—right on the beach, overlooking the Gulf. Why not come down?

At the time, we were about  four weeks out from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. I knew the state of things. I’d struggled to reconcile the vastness of it, and had tried to remain as blinkered as possible, given the fact that the last time a Gulf disaster had made nightly news I’d nearly lost my damn mind.[3]  Given my tenuous emotional state, I wasn’t sure I was ready to literally wade into Actual Environmental Catastrophe. Does that make me sound weak?

Mom told me I was being dramatic. Things were fine. She’d called the hotel. It’s not the end of the world, just a vacation. We can even go over to New Orleans if you like. You haven’t been there since the hurricane, have you? No. I hadn’t.  It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

I woke up crying. I was at once relieved and horrified, because I couldn’t stop. My mother called and found me incapable of an answer about Florida because I was sobbing so hard. She thought maybe I should come home anyway because what the hell was wrong with me? I thought she was maybe right, because I’d been googling “brain tumor” and “uncontrollable weeping” (but not Wellbutrin-withdrawal) before she called. I packed a bag with all-purpose summer things—swimsuits, novels, unflattering sundresses, cheap sunglasses—and cried all the way to my mother’s house. At midnight, still crying, I decided to go to Florida.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Saturday, June 5, 2010

“All of the seafood is from the Gulf,” said the bartender, who was either a young-looking forty-five or a hard living thirty and obviously tired of being asked the same questions. “It’s snapper season. Shrimp is good as ever. Still not oil-based.”

I studied the bumper sticker over the bar–Pensacola. A Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.

Federal waters are closed here. So long as you keep your fishing boat less than twelve miles out from the coast, you can still fish, but that limits all deep-sea fishing (and has cancelled an annual deep-sea fishing tournament that our bartender tonight assured me has not been cancelled in forty years). This means trouble for guys looking for a bigger haul and certainly introduces some short-term complications for those looking to eat local seafood. As of four o’clock today (before the nasty, flooding thunderstorm I drove into this afternoon), the first large oil slick was about three miles off Pensacola Beach. There are booms (not enough) protecting the wetlands on the inland side. The fisherman, put simply, are pretty much screwed.

Of course, there’s another side to this. I overheard the bartender talking about his cousin to a couple of local customers. The cousin has worked piloting deep-sea fishing trips for tourists. Now, with that job effectively over for the summer, the cousin has taken contract work with BP. “They pay up to $1500 a day,” said the bartender, “which is a shitload of money for my cousin. “Apparently this scenario works out for BP, as guys like the cousin are prohibited from talking to the press, and unlikely to even talk to their neighbors as “there are folks around here who’d just as soon put a bullet in anyone that works for BP.” In the meantime, a bunch of small-time fisherman and small boat captains make more money in a week than they’re likely to make in a couple of months. The bartender grinned. “We call them oillionaires.”

***

Pensacola is a lot weirder than a town immediately adjacent to a giant naval base would suggest. Save few high-rises and Spanish street names, it didn’t feel much like Florida. It felt quite a bit more like Alabama, which I could see from my stepfather’s suite at the Pensacola Beach Hilton.  Downtown is late afternoon porch nap of a place, charming even, especially perhaps, in its overgrown gardens and storm stripped stucco walls in the way that so many Southern towns are, so long as you don’t stray too far or think too hard about it.

To get to the Beach, I drove out through a rainstorm across a new bridge parallel to an old one that had been carved into a sinister ellipsis by Hurricane Ivan six years before and left to decompose in Escambia Bay like a monument to any human that rebuilds near storm-haunted waters ever since. I paid a dollar at a toll booth and saw a giant blinking marquee telling me Do Not Pick Up Tar Balls.

Jimmy Buffett got to town the same night I did. He joined then-governor Charlie Crist at a press conference at the Grand Opening of the new Margaritaville Resort Hotel. Together, they informed the public that the beach was open despite oil sludge and the fact that the entire strip smelled like an Exxon, or more accurately, a BP station. I got the giggles in the hotel lobby, which was equally packed with drawling tourists and members of the international media posting live from the shiny blue bar, because what the fuck was I doing there?

In the suite, I had my own room and my own balcony. I could look out at the gulf and see sharks and sting rays swimming in the water, round the legs of swimmers. I read a strange, dreamy novel about upstate New York. I watched the first ever episode of “Game of Thrones” on hotel HBO. I sat at the bar in the lobby, pretending to be a journalist, writing Dispatches from the Gulf for mostly disinterested audience of Facebook friends.

It was the second day, sitting at the lobby bar drinking gin and tonics with the Associated Press that I realized I’d stopped crying.

***

Notes From The Gulf, Sunday, June 6, 2010

The desk clerk at the Pensacola Beach Hilton has a lot to deal with right now. There are news crews editing footage at the lobby bar and journalists hunkered over laptops. There are several weddings—both past cancellation date. There are visiting dignitaries. There are drunken frat boys. There are next week’s guests calling every five minutes or so to get an honest opinion on the beach condition.

“I tell them it’s a beautiful day outside,” says the desk clerk. “I tell them the beach is full of people. And they all think I’m lying.”

She’s not. The sky is cloudless blue. The sand still soft and pale as powdered sugar. The Gulf is clean and aquamarine. Hundreds of people have crowded onto the quarter mile stretch from the Casino Beach boardwalk to the far side of the Hilton. They’re surfing and sunning and plenty are swimming in the breaking waves. No one’s really paying much attention to the half-hazmat suited guys in protective booties, scraping pea-sized tarballs out of the seaweed that washed ashore in last night’s thunderstorm. No one’s paying much mind to the 30×30 foot square caution taped off and bearing the footprint of a not-quite-cleaned up oily mess. No one’s exactly noticed their oil stained extremities, and if they have, no one really seems to care (they probably won’t until they try to wash it off). But mostly, no one’s talking about the smell.

I’d tell you it’s sort of like a service station in August, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Because it’s a smell that you can’t really get to go away. Even when you’re inside it permeates. Even when you’re two bays off the beach and walking through downtown Pensacola, you can smell it. To ignore that odor and all of its unmistakable implications (as most of my fellow beach goers are/have been doing) is a truly epic feat of fairy-dusted, calorie-free bacon level denial.

And maybe denial isn’t so bad. I mean, if the alternative finds you crying in the surf like the fifty-some year-old blond woman in a pink batik dress, who drew a crowd while scrubbing tar off her grandson’s knees. Or if the alternative finds (collective) you fleeing the gulf coast in abject terror for fear of contamination and taking all of your friends with you. Or if the alternative has you jumping to all kinds of nutty conclusions about why it’s happening (the Wrath of God/Mother Nature,/Greenpeace pipe bomb/ Obama-led plot to kick start his Marxist-Fascist-Totalitarian Muslim Regime/ Republican ploy to destroy the world) and to whom (the Gulf is full of sinners and hedonists who deserve it because they don’t love god/ the Gulf is full of bigots and bible beaters who deserve it because they vote against their interests).

There are thousands of people down here whose depend on these tiny, unsustainable spits of sand and surf that will play natural boom to the invaluable bays, wetlands and tributaries on the inland side of these barrier islands. However many more days tourists can convince themselves there’s nothing really wrong are days the local population can get paid. And I’m sure it’s stressful—the curious dance of the service industry in a tourism-based economy made even more absurd by the fact that they’re working on the outer edge of a disaster.

The conference rooms of the Hilton are packed with BP led seminars for new employees on the subject of cleaning white sand and coral, skimming oil off the water surface and (maybe) misleading the press.

Speaking of which, those guys that work for the AP certainly do have snazzy matching anoraks. If you happened to share an elevator with them today, you probably learned that AT&T has been mostly out (occasionally in) on Pensacola Beach all day today, preventing all of us from fully utilizing our iPhones.”

***

My stepfather took us on a tour of the town. We had dinner with a local socialite in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. It sat way out on a toe-shaped peninsula in the middle of a bayou. She tells hurricane stories, showing how far the water came up by putting a hand to the knee of her white silk trousers, then the seat of the sofa, then over the wainscoting, up the wall. The priceless antiques and art and artifacts the live oat branches and cypress limbs barely missed when they stormed the parlor.  I nod along, fascinated by extravagance at unsustainable places the way only someone who has grown up in the mountains can be. In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan and all.

I didn’t mention any of this, of course. We also avoided talking about the oil spill, because rich white people in the Deep South are generally a nothing but the weather and health unless they signal otherwise.

I sat by the pool during the day. I shuffled through muscle-d dudes with military haircuts and tribal tattoos to order frozen drinks from the tiki bar at the boardwalk. The drinks came out of neon boxes, refilled up top from pre-mixed bags of milky pastels and jugs of Bacardi. I avoided the blue raspberry bushwhacker and the Dixie Peach daquiri in favor of the pina colada, which was at least a color that existed in nature. One day, sitting at the bar, looking at the distant shimmer of oil on water, I saw a plane fly over, dragging a banner that read VOTE GOP: DRILL, BABY, DRILL!

 I thought, you could not make this shit up. I thought so, gleefully we self-destruct. I did not think all of that would seem quaint by comparison just a few years down the line.

***

Notes from the Gulf, Monday, June 8, 2010”

Gene Valentino, Escambia County Commissioner, headed up a televised press conference this evening on the Pensacola ABC-affiliate today regarding the oil spill. He offered assurances that the county would do everything in its power to ensure that high-paying BP clean-up jobs came first to local workers and that they would only utilize county funds to pay for spill related issues until the BP settlement funds appear. “The beach is still open. Tell everyone you know. Our local businesses depend on it,” he said, and then added that that the county had yet to determine whether it was safe for anyone to swim in the Gulf.

Everything changes on a day-to-day basis. Sunday night, the stench of oil was so strong I could barely sit on balcony seventeen stories over the water. And then the wind changed. The oil sheen drifted from a half a mile to a mile back out into open sea. And then it went west, to Destin. The cameras, the reporters, the sense of imminent doom went with it. On Monday, there was nothing. Hardly a tarball. Just kids building sandcastles. If you could ignore the big, white, clam shell-hinged hazardous waste containers lining the beach like robot cabanas, it’s almost like there was no oil spill at all.

“The oil spill didn’t just blow away,” said Valentino. “The winds could create a yo-yo effect, moving the sheens from place to place.” In other words, we’re not out of the woods. The deep, thick sludgy oil is still sitting out there in the Gulf, menacing out past the horizon line, thirty miles from land. There’s no such thing as being out of the woods when you’re dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude. Not when questions like where we can dock the vessels being used for clean-up where their oil-slicked hulls will not further contaminate the water have no long-term answer.”

***

Mom and I take my car to New Orleans on a sunny June morning, with the heat making mirage pools shimmer off Interstate 10. I sit in the passenger seat and try not to be worried because it’s five years after the storm, and things are going to be fine, right?

 I have a family connection to New Orleans. Several of my relatives–including my favorite great-aunt—lived there for decades, some portion of which in a house on Royal Street. My first trip there, years before, had been revelatory. It was a place I hadn’t expected to love,[4] let alone love with such immediate full-throated intensity. But I did love it. And weeks afterward I still dreamed in filigreed wrought iron and found myself perversely driven to Proustian reflection by terrible smells—sun warmed trash and old salty rot and stale alcohol—because they’d remind me of wandering through the French Quarter in the morning, stopping in secondhand shops with my Dad’s old girlfriend to browse vintage Mardi Gras ballgowns and voodoo paraphernalia.

I’d never been to NOLA with Mom. She went with my stepfather, a Louisiana native with a French surname. Hers was the New Orleans of Commanders Palace and the carousel bar at the Monteleone. So, we ate lunch at a nice restaurant. We stopped in art galleries and fancy boutiques. We drank gin when the sky opened up and turned Jackson Square into steamy glass. It was hot, hot enough that even the tourists were in short order. We didn’t wander far. At vampire themed gift shop, I got a note from my new roommate, telling her that her first rent check was going to bounce but no worries, I’ll fix it. I stared at a wall of fanged rubber duckies and thought, is this the moment when everything falls apart?

 It wasn’t.

We bought a bag of beignets for later. The ladies at Café Du Monde suggested we take a Styrofoam bowl of powdered sugar for the road, so we could sugar the beignets when we heated them up.

New Orleans was as New Orleans is. I drove us home and zoned out while Mom talked. I was relieved that I still loved it. It was comforting to know I hadn’t completely lost myself and that the city wasn’t totally lost to me. I wondered if I should move there. I wondered if I should move anywhere. I wondered at how it was that I’d become so resistant to change. That wasn’t supposed to be who I was at all. I was supposed to be adaptable, adventurous, a mossless stone. And yet . . .

I spent my last night in Pensacola, sitting on the balcony, long after my mother and stepfather had gone to bed, dunking gently reheated beignets into a bowl of sugar and staring out at the oil-slicked gulf. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.

At night, though, it didn’t’ feel so much like disaster. And I didn’t feel so much like a disaster. I felt like I could put up a sail and, with the curious breeze or a double dog dare, let the wind and water carry me away to some place that wasn’t falling apart because of its own complacency, that didn’t need to be stripped and rebuilt and made whole again.

I didn’t, of course. Instead, I arose the scrape the tar from my feet and begin the long, slow business of making my life bearable again.

_______________

[1] Still unfinished.

[2] That wasn’t how things worked for me, not exactly, but you can’t really explain about process, mostly because whenever someone talks about process, they’re 99% full of shit.

[3] Katrina really fucked me up but good, y’all.

[4] My favorite places usually end up being the ones I don’t expect to love. The ones I imagine I’ll adore usually come out a little gray in the wash. The most famous example of this is how I thought I’d become a Paris devotee (I didn’t) and figured all of Italy would be overrated (it’s really, really not).  There are exceptions to this rule. New York City is exactly as billed. So is San Francisco, or at least, the part of San Francisco that’s yet not entirely composed of entitled nerd bajillionaires.

 
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.:

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