In Medias Res

Dresses / Personal History / Women

There was a period during my youth in which having a midlife crisis seemed like a thing that all the dads were doing. Exact dates may vary, but you could probably chronologically soundtrack the era as starting with Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life and ending with Santana’s Supernatural (or, if you prefer, roughly The Sportswriter to American Beauty) and really hitting its stride around 1989, the year that produced the both the Mazda Miata and Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. 

In those days, the phenomenon of the midlife crisis was so prevalent that we just accepted it as an inevitability of the male aging process. Like ear hair, bald spots, and shouting at you over dinner about fiscal responsibility. Like, at some point all men went from being young dudes at college seeing classic rock bands in 1969 to being normal dads to being creepy dudes making very weird fashion choices and embarrassing you by talking endlessly to your babysitter about those classic rock bands they saw in college in 1969. There was an enormous amount of filmed, audio, and print media on the subject. There was Iron John. There was Bill Clinton’s saxophone. There were Jimmy Buffet fans. There were stoned grown men in unbuttoned polos, riding around in golf carts at a mid-level beach resorts in the swampy twilight of a Lowcountry summer during the Bush Sr years, filling the damp air with the sound of a tinny boom box asking passing, mortified ninth graders in R.E.M t-shirts whether their love would still be strong, after the boys of summer have gone.

Clearly there were exceptions. The midlife crisis as popularly portrayed was a phenomenon concentrated among usually white, middle-class adjacent, mostly (though certainly not all) heterosexual men. And among practitioners, there were plenty of deviations. Some dads bought Harleys or took up crossbow hunting or high stakes poker or painful blues rock cover bands. Among my immediate sphere, there was a heavy tendency toward Wilderness Adventure—either Outward Bound or thru-hiking the AT— and new age spirituality, which oftentimes served as Single Let’s Mingle events for newly divorced fathers eager to meet a sandalwood-scented romantic partner named after an alcoholic beverage or a large body of water.  We, children of the zeitgeist, quietly compared our respective circumstances at the food court, tried to roll with it, channeling our own non-verbal, pre-hashtag version of OK Boomer into a lot of eye rolling and ironic distance I know Dad’s new socks and sandals, ponytailed faux yogi persona is kind of weird. But, like, did you hear that Stephanie’s new stepmother is technically younger than Stephanie’s oldest sister. I mean, is that even legal? It is? Really?

 Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

On the bonus, as teenaged girls, having a midlife crisis felt like a thing that would never happen to us, even if we reached the advanced age of oh my god, like, so old, like, forty, gross without perishing in some Plainsong-soundtracked exquisite tragedy with a guy that looked kind of like Christian Slater or maybe James Hurley. But even if we managed to evade the reaper for a few more decades, the whole concept seemed so inherently masculine, and specifically so suburban, lawn-having, over-tanned polo-shirt masculine, we would-be urban sophisticates believed we were safe.

After all, our mothers did not appear to have midlife crises. I mean, they might briefly invested in drinking wine and emotionally applauding the end of “Thelma and Louise” or maybe drop by a Wicca Welcome Book Club on “Fried Green Tomatoes” night (note: magic doesn’t have to be real for a well-deployed hex to feel empowering), but there was nothing of the wild, shameless abandon of their male peers and partners. Somebody had to  pay the bills and make sure we got to school. A forty year old dude that quits his banking job, cashes in his retirement, leaves his spouse, and runs off to Oaxaca/Grand Cayman/Long Boat Key  to spend nine months flirting with younger women and journaling about self-actualization, could be seen then, at least by other men (and, if the books were to be believed, a coterie of impressionable young women in creative writing programs) as an inspirational figure, bravely casting off the shackles of his soulless suburban existence and seizing freedom from the maws of a small-minded and uncaring capitalist machine. The forty year old woman who did the same was a cautionary tale, a lunatic, a criminal, whose behavior could be possibly explained by the tragedy of her never having become a mother. And if she was a mother? Well, god help her and maybe we should call the authorities. I mean, how could anyone woman be so selfish?

Seriously, how could anyone?

And yet.

I’m forty-effing-@#$ years old. We’re calling it midlife, but it’s probably only the middle if we’re looking at a “Holy Good Genes, Batman! You must  have a healthy savings account and be plenty optimistic about climate change” timeline.  (Nope). And to my nearly immeasurable chagrin, I’m pretty sure I’m having a midlife crisis. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been having a midlife crises for at least, I dunno, three years now?

As a single lady with no kids, you might imagine I’d be flying high, cruising the Wayward Isles from my (literal or figurative) sailboat like a post-modern Stede Bonnet, free from expectation, spousal scorn, and the guilt of having allowed my thankfully non-existant children to “literally die of embarrassment.” But you know, Covid. Also, house payment. The security of a wholly fine life it feels stupid to ditch just because my pants turned antsy around the time strangers started nodding and saying something kind of patronizing about the change. There are the big questions I probably need to sort out about identity and desire and whether, if thing things you thought might make you are happy are wholly out of range, whether you can settle without resentment into something that is not unrewarding and mostly comfortable, even if it’s not what you’d choose.  But there’s also a war in the Ukraine, a global pandemic, and it feels pretty petty so invest a lot of time in the wallow. I mean,  I’m not dying or starving because I’m not so secretly pretty sad and a little bored with my life.

There’s no practical guidebook for women in midlife.  We may get hot flashes, hormonal shifts and sanctimonious lectures from other women how much of a shit we should or should not be giving about how we present ourselves. We probably get advice about diet, exercise, mindfulness, clutter, finances, how stressed we are for doing too much, how we should be doing more, how one glass of wine is more than enough, how we shouldn’t forget our screenings, our vitamins, our therapy, self-care, treat yourself, you be you,  but not too much, not all the time, and certainly not like that. HAVE YOU UPDATED YOUR GRATITUDE JOURNAL TODAY? WHAT KIND OF UNGRATEFUL A-HOLE DOESN’T UPDATE HER GRATITUDE JOURNAL?

We’re supposed to responsible and practical and way too tired to go out and way over making new friends, contented, settled, far beyond the petty, privileged whining about how sad we are that we didn’t age into Tilda Swinton or whatever. We’re also supposed to be confident by now. We’re supposed to be out of fucks to give. We’re supposed to be good with where we are. It should be enough to be reasonably healthy and housed. It should be enough to have friends and family and decent insurance plan. It should be enough. And besides, anything can happen. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. You can still publish a novel. You can still sing with a band. You can still see elephants in the wild. You can still commit to bad tattoos, worse hairstyles, tumultuous relationships, useless degrees, demeaning jobs, overpriced tickets to see terrible bands play. You have decades. Have you considered a bucket list?

But, friends, it feels like exactly zero time—zero time—has passed between being a seventeen year old who believed herself on the threshold of an excellent life and the fat lady in her mid-forties still terrified she might miss out on something, because she’s absolutely, positively, 100% sure she has. I don’t feel like I’ve gained any arcane wisdom over the years, or aged into myself in a cloak of radical self-acceptance. I mean, as person who came up in the 1990s, I’m still trying to deactivate some decades-retrograde attitudes about how (or even whether) a person can even be successful or satisfied and not be some kind of sell-out.  And this is where I am, at long last, kind of, vaguely sort of sensitive to the dads of my youth and their desperate attempts to try again, to fail, and fail, if not better, then at least in a Hawaiian shirt doing all the shit they missed out on in the mid-1970s. Maybe dial the Steely Dan down a notch, but on some level, I feel you.

So what does all this look like for me? Well, right now I’m shopping my way through it. I’m not yet going broke on dresses and cardigans, another pair of sneakers that feels for a second like they might imbue me with superpowered cool, or at least the ability to walk miles fashionably, which is, if I’ve learned anything since age 17, a kind of superpower. I stand in my closet trying on still tagged outfits trying to work out whether I can summon some of the old swagger back if I just embrace the high-waisted boyfriend jean or a slip dress or a pair of platform-soled Doc Martens that look exactly like the ones I would have sold my soul for when I was seventeen.

It’s not enough. It won’t last forever, this business of trying to find a version of my life I like through looking at myself in a different outfit in the full length mirror. For now, though, it’s cheaper than a sports car, easier than falling in love, and probably smarter than rocking the boat at a time in my life, in this place, at a moment in time when everything, all over, feels so breathtakingly uncertain.  

Tomorrow, who knows?

Maybe I’ll hit up the Wiccans.


Accidents / Fiction / Nostalgia / Uncategorized / Women

I don’t post short stories here, but for completely stupid, Celebrity gossip reasons I’ve been thinking a little about love and violence and I was like, “hey, maybe people are tired of reading about the Oscars, and would prefer to read a much less controversial romantic melodrama about toxic masculinity that I wrote back in 2011 and which has nothing to do with the greater public discourse.” Admittedly unlikely as this may be, I put it up here, because, what the hell, probably not doing anything else with this one.

I have a notion that one of these days, I’ll have a different space to put stuff like this so it doesn’t bump up against essays and anecdotes or whatever else we’re calling what I put here these days. But until then, apologies.

Once again, this is fiction. Also, it is long.


The waiting room is an orchestra of ugly noises. Sniffs, snorts, smacks, coughs, the crackle of the intercom, the chirp of rubber shoes against the floor, the cries of the grateful and the grieving, the clicking  of Juliet’s fingernails against the tabloid page.

I stare at the clock over the nurse’s station, having already picked the lint from my coat and bitten the skin away from my nails. I tried reading. It didn’t take.

Juliet jabs a talon at a snapshot of a bottle blonde posing on a red carpet. “Alison never had those tits when I knew her.  As if that might salvage her dead career. What an unscrupulous whore.”

The old man two chairs down clucks and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether it’s the whore he finds objectionable or Juliet’s over-enthusiastic embrace of the word unscrupulous, which was perhaps introduced to her lexicon about a half hour ago by her Uncle Ducks’ Your brother is the most unscrupulous, most inappropriate, most inconvenient little fucker I’ve ever known—and which Juliet has used at least a dozen times since

She tosses the magazine into the chair beside her and gives a sigh worthy of its own dressing room.

 “Where are the fucking doctors in this fucking place?”

Juliet smells like perfume bottle broken on a barroom floor and is high on at least three different kinds of semi-legal drugs, but she looks like a Botticelli Venus. She’s never invisible; when I’m with her, I cannot disappear.  Nor can I keep myself from blushing and squirming and drowning in mute embarrassment at her volume.

 “I could have a cigarette,” she says.

I don’t offer. She’ll refuse it and hope I’ll bully her into it. To do anything, Juliet requires hazing. It’s what happens when you’re a fragile fucking flower raised in a thicket of thugs. She might have been speaking of her family, or the city of Los Angeles, from whence she recently relocated, or the entertainment industry in general. I never asked. She did, however, repeat the phrase thicket of thugs three or four more times before she caught on that I was laughing. “Don’t get too giggly. You’re dating the biggest thug I know.”

Her brother, Gabriel. This was and is still true. I look at the clock.

 “Did you hear what I said about the cigarette?”

I yank at the zipper on my bag and point to the open pack inside.

“Don’t you want someone to come with you?” she asks.

“I just smoked,” I say. “And technically I’ve quit.”

She sulks so hard her chair shudders petulantly. Juliet knows no emotion without physical manifestation. It’s a family trait, I guess, as evidenced by our presence here in the purgatory of a 3am ER, awaiting final word from the doctors trying to save the life of a loud-mouthed, half-time sommelier that earlier tonight provoked the biggest thug Juliet and I know to monstrous violence.  Gabriel is getting a cat scan. Even the hospital believes he must be brain damaged. After all, how could anyone be so reckless as to commit murder over a sidelong comment, a slip of the tongue, a slight of such borderline offensiveness that even Victorian church ladies wouldn’t waste a blush, a stupid word, a single syllable, a slut. And why was it so offensive? Because of its snide delivery? Because it was kind of true? Because it was directed at a drunk, married woman draped all over the man that shares my bed?

I won’t be drawing attention to that part of the story.  My dumb, reflexive loyalty to the possible murderer in Exam Room 2 overwhelms the insult of infidelity. I’m not outraged. I’m not even really hurt by it. I’m petty and superficial. I’m far more concerned about the possibility that I may be dating a killer than the fact of the killing itself. 

“But it’s not the violence itself that bothers me. There’s something appealingly atavistic about it. It’s that what provokes the violence is so . . . so trivial.”  This is what I said to Juliet, twelve weeks ago, the last time we found ourselves in a waiting room together.

That night she’d given me the same vacant stare that managed to convey both pity and contempt “What you’re saying is that you’d prefer a caveman with principles,” she said.

“Is that fucked up?” I asked.

“It’s only fucked up to ask. But if you’re asking me, nothing ruins sex and violence like morality.”   

It was a psychopath’s answer, but I didn’t say so. I was the one sleeping with a psychopath, after all.  Even then, I thought I might wring a drop or two of righteousness from the spray of spit and blood staining last week’s sidewalk or tonight’s barroom floor. I might make a reasonable case for one of those leading man qualities Gabriel believes he possesses. Honor and chivalry and loyalty instead of cruelty and ugliness and waste.

But Gabriel leaves waste everywhere he goes. His waste is insidious, toxic and impervious to conventional clean up. He’s like a human Superfund site.

“It’s a good thing Gabriel has plenty of money.” The man affectionately called Uncle Ducks says and steps back the waiting room. He is red-eyed and trembling; his fingers chalky from the large-sized bottle of antacids he’s been pulling from his overcoat pocket since arrival.  He has thrice been reprimanded by the nurse in charge for using his cell phone and twice come back inside cursing the winter and Gabriel for running afoul of the law at the darkest hour, on the coldest night of the darkest, coldest month of the year. He is not, to my knowledge, biologically related to either Juliet or her brother.

I groan, seasick with anxiety.  Ducks notes and pours a couple of antacid tablets into my hand.

 “Do these actually help?” I ask.

He shrugs.

“I have better things,” says Juliet.

Uncle Ducks moves Juliet’s bag to another chair and pats her hand. “Why don’t we save those for a more private venue, sweetheart.”

“We’re in a goddamn hospital, Arthur. Everybody is on drugs.”

I hear the rustle of magazines and pray for a competing emergency.

“Juliet, why don’t you do us a favor and pick up another pack of cigarettes. Maybe have one yourself before you come back in.” Ducks wags a twenty-dollar bill at her.

“I don’t appreciate being ordered around,” she says, but stands and leaves anyway.

He sits down beside me. I draw my knees together. The edge of Uncle Ducks’ camel overcoat brushes my hand.  I listen to the sound of two nurses chatting at the desk. I have a novel in my bag. I doubt I could make it through a page.

“You have somebody you can call?”

Uncle Ducks faces away from me. His voice is so distracted and soft, he has to repeat himself before I know he’s talking to me.

 “Why?” I ask.

 “Because Gabriel is going to get arrested regardless of whether or not that other kid pulls through. And I don’t know how much you know about Gabriel’s past—“

“This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” I weight here so he’ll get that I mean more than this hospital. Though, in fact I have literally been to this emergency room not three months ago and sat in a different chair across the room alone and scowled and wrote epic imaginary break-up letters. But  Gabriel came shuffling out, knuckles bandaged, the left hand side of his face a swollen muddle of the visible spectrum, he apologized. And I fell into his arms and forgave him because I love him and I’m incredibly stupid and very weak.

 “I’m very sorry,” says Ducks.

“There’s still a chance it might come out okay, though,” I say. “I mean, you told Juliet—“

“It’s my impression that you’re a lot smarter than Juliet. “ He pats my hand. “Be a smart person.”

A doctor in scrubs enters the waiting room and nods at us.

“Gabriel’s in recovery,” he says. “You can see him if you want.”

Uncle Ducks sits up, fiddles with the cuff of his sweatshirt. “The other man that was brought in tonight. Justin Wallace?”

The doctor narrows his eyes. He’s attractive, I think, in a tidy, conscientious round-spectacled sort of way. A smart person would love a man like that instead of a man like Gabriel.

“We’ll let you know when we know.” The doctor points me to the door.

I hesitate, the tile weaving beneath my feet. I’m sure I should have had more coffee, or perhaps more liquor. I feel my knees buckle. A sense of airlessness. I wonder if Uncle Duck’s candy pills have been dosed with something antagonistic to gravity


Once upon a time when it was almost Christmas and wouldn’t stop snowing and I was new to the city, young, enfeebled by underemployment and the accompanying debt and depression. I spent my days in bed staring at the pigeon feather winter sky through a tenement window and my nights smoking cigarettes on the icy rooftop, considering the twinkling, distant fantasy of Manhattan from across the East River.  Wrapped in blankets, I imagined myself heir to whatever consumptive immigrant had once inhabited my apartment in the era of robber barons, bowler-hatted Bowery toughs, and unhappily betrothed heiresses in bustles and picture hats.  I set aside unpaid bills and unfinished cover letters in favor of imagining myself into a Gilded Age tableau, wherein my imminent poverty was picturesque and tragic, not at all like the expanding dull ache of the thing that kicked me awake in the early dawn and kept me as shivery and insecure as the cute, but woefully insufficient winter coat I bought on discount before I understood what cold actually felt like when you have to live in it.  

When I went out, it was mostly through the largesse of my roommate and her cadre of rich art school friends or the professionally employed friends of classmates from my far less glamorous southern state university. We met at dive bars, where they came to nurse cheap beers and muse about their own imaginary New Yorks of the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1990s. Everyone arrived, up from the south, from the Midwest, from somewhere else, knowing that if we’d just been here five decades, five years, five minutes ago, it would have been perfect. We’d always just missed the apogee, whenever it was, and the disappointment of now was on us for being too late.  But if were lucky, on the right night, in the right light, we might still catch a whiff of the good, bad old days and soak up the afterglow.

On a dirty slush of a winter weekend, three days before Christmas, I told my mother I wouldn’t be coming home for the holidays because I’d slept through my free ride south. This wasn’t entirely true. I didn’t want Florida suburbs to prove more comfortable than my squalid existence, and I was pretty sure they would. I didn’t want to explain my failure to my sisters. I worried if I left I would not be able to justify coming back, because not coming back would be reasonable. I still far too in thrall to romance to surrender to reason, which is probably why I wore my grandmother’s green satin dress into the city that afternoon. It was the color of moss with cinched waist and a gathered skirt, made for a garden party on a spring evening, not traversing Lower Manhattan in salt-ruined winter boots. I was taller than Nana, and the dress was almost too small, but I’d grown hungry enough to close the zipper, and felt perversely pleased with myself. I might be too broke to buy food but at least I was wasting into beauty.

I wandered alone through crowded sidewalks observing Christmas shoppers, people with purpose and income, as if they were a whole other species. I lingered long in the fading slant light of the Lower East Sider.  At nightfall, it turned too cold to ramble and I didn’t want to go home, so I stood shivering under fire escapes of a tenement on Orchard Street texting friends with numb fingers, begging for an excuse to stay out and a tacit promise that they’d pick up the tab. But they were too busy or I was too desperate and I found myself alone at a bar on that trafficked in a seedy past, but smelled like fresh paint and served sixteen dollar pints to day traders dressed like dockworkers in cashmere beanies.

When Gabriel blew in, flushed from fight, he parted the crowd with his staggering and bled all over my dress when he leaned over the bar to order a round of whiskeys. I didn’t know where the blood came from, his busted lip or his torn knuckles, but it dripped in an arc over the shining pleats of my skirt.  He reached across me for his glass and met my look of horror with a crooked smile.

He pointed the stains on my dress. “Is that mine?”

A trail of blood streaked the arm of his sweater. In his half-sneering, thin nosed, boyishness, he resembled all the rich rednecks at my hometown high school and reeked of cologne and entitlement.  

He motioned to the bartender and my glass.  “Improve the quality of whatever she’s drinking.” He dropped a sheaf of twenties on the bar. “That should take care of the dress. Get it cleaned or –“ He raised his eyebrows and added a hundred dollar bill to the top. “What the hell. Get yourself something nice. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.” He emptied his glass and signaled the bartender for a refill

I touched the bills, eyes stinging. “This dress belonged to my grandmother. She bought it in New York in 1947 for her trousseau. She gave it to me when I moved up here. This dress is an heirloom. It’s irreplaceable.”

 He stared at me for long enough that I was both attracted and repelled by the milky blue of his eyes, when he finally spoke, it was softer, and without the tough swagger of his introduction. “Huh. You know, my grandpa gave me his overcoat. Bought it from a tailor before he left the city for California.  Also in 1947. He hardly needed it there, so I brought it back. I still wear it sometimes.”

He reached into his pocket again. I held up my hand to object another round of bills. Even though I needed the money, it wasn’t about the money. But instead he produced a receipt, a pen and turned to write on the bar. The back of his hand was covered in scars, knuckles still bloody and raw. And I thought I’d never seen hands like that in my life. Hands like that could kill a person. Hands like that maybe already had.

He handed me the paper. There was a number. A name. Gabriel.

 “Call me if you get hungry,” he said.

“Is that a metaphor?”

He shrugged. A friend of his tugged at his arm, said something about police, and he slipped off into the crowd, out into the street.

When I got home that night, I copied the number on an index card and pinned it to my stained dress, which I hung from the window sash. I studied it from my bed, I wondered what the constellation of bloodstains might augur. I considered my grandmother, clucking at me from the afterlife, you should have never worn that dress to a bar. I napped away a hangover and I woke from a dream about him late in the afternoon and found my cupboards bare, prospects grim and recalled that his eyes were the color of Nana’s hydrangeas back home.

The number was for a restaurant. Not a metaphor. I felt foolish, almost hung up before I managed to ask for him. He answered the phone brusquely, over a clatter. I swallowed a desire to apologize and told him who I was. 

“That was fast,” he said and rattled off an address. “Come at ten.”

“Tonight?’ I asked.

“They’ll probably seat you at the bar, but that won’t be a problem. You’ll be dining alone.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be cooking. Are you a vegetarian?”

“No,” I said.

“Anything else I should know?”

I swallowed and pulled he blanket over my empty stomach. “If I’m honest,  I haven’t had a decent meal in days. I’m fucking starving.”

“Glorious,” he said. “Wear the dress.”

I spent the night before the night before Christmas in Nana’s blood stained dress, drinking wines out of my price range, at a restaurant I could not possible afford, watching  dishes appear before me, each a delight, ending with a confection involving chocolate, thick and black as river silt. I was saddened because I could neither consume it all nor make it last. The restaurant was empty, by then, the tables stripped and the chairs empty, save waiters dawdling for a shift drink. The bartender poured me a glass of cognac and offered to call me a cab. “If it makes any difference,” he said. “The taxi is already paid for.”

“I’d like to give my compliments to the chef,” I said.

The bartender looked up from his books. “I’ll be sure he gets the message.”

I sat back, disappointed. Somewhere between courses I’d surrendered to the idea of the meal being some sort of extravagant foreplay. The salt and fat, the tang of sour and cloying sweet on my lips and tongue, the warm, heady wooze of alcohol,  my full belly straining against the satin of a ruined dress had left me flushed at the idea of being further undone by Gabriel’s ruined hands. I was stung by his seeming rejection. So I emptied my glass and departed before the bartender could call the car. I heard the restaurant door lock behind me.

Outside, a fine white snow sugared sidewalks only half melted from the last storm. I knotted my scarf once again round my neck and dug in my pocket for cigarettes and gloves, as a I rounded the corner, looking for respite from the wind.  I closed my eyes for dangerous second and heard steps.

When I opened them, I saw Gabriel on the sidewalk, a long dark overcoat over kitchen whites.

 “I thought you’d left,” I said.

He pinched the lapel of the coat. “I wanted to show you the coat.”

 “It’s nice,” I said.

 “Not as nice as your dress,” he said.

“But probably warmer,” I said.

 He grinned. “Probably.”

“I’ve never had a meal like that before.”

 “Least I could do. Considering.” A noisy crowd pushed between us on the sidewalk. I watched them clear the block.

He drew closer. I was aware, for the first time, that he dwarfed me. With one hand, he pushed back my coat to touch the spots on my skirt.

“Any chance you’re still hungry?” he asked, so close I could smell the wet wool of his coat.

I reached out to touch his cheek, but before I really had time to contemplate, he answered for me.


Twenty-eight stitches from cheek to hairline.  Right fist bound in the white gauze and plaster of an invalid’s boxing glove. He’s red-eyed and woozy from the drugs, the concussion. He flashes me the glassy-eyed broken kid smile of the willfully ignorant.

“Hello there, beautiful,” he says.

A middle-aged cop leans his chair against the wall to the side of the bed and fingermarks a page of Us Weekly. Gabriel hasn’t been arrested yet, but he will be. The delay is only a formality. The cop’s gaze lingers too long over my midsection and I feel self-conscious at my fleshy belly. I eat when I’m worried. I eat when I’m in love. I worry over a lover who brings home things to eat.  Gabriel pats the side of his bed.  I take about three steps into the room and the cop sighs.   

“You’re close enough,” says the cop.

 “What happened?” I ask.

 “A crazy person attacked me and Quinn.”

I sigh. I don’t know if this is the version edited for the cop or just the way Gabriel sees it.  I don’t know the rules for this. Two years we’ve been together, but I still don’t know how to have these conversations. I don’t come from people that have them. I don’t know whether the fact that may have killed a man with his bare hands will make him despair or swell with pride.  I worry he doesn’t know either.

He flexes his fingers. “Good thing I’m a southpaw,” he says, voice cracking.

I shake away sympathy pains in my own hand and see his eyes go glassy.  He would be warm beneath hospital blankets and I would fit right into him. I could rest my head against his chest and hear the familiar rhythm of his heartbeat.  He would kiss me with his monster’s tenderness and I would be furious that I liked it. Because I need to hate him a little, because I need to believe I’m not weak, I clear my throat and ask:

“So, how long have you been sleeping with Quinn?”

I get no answer save wide-eyed, wordless guilt before a second cop emerges from around the corner of the hall.


He doesn’t have to ask. I’ve already left the room, because I don’t want to hear him arrested.


When Gabriel tells of how we met, there are choirs of angels and stars glittering. The air crackles with electricity. There are tears to accompany his blood and sweat, quite possibly a swell of violins.  Gabriel takes the poetic read on pretty much any situation. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. I was, after all already emptying the sidewalks of littered oily slush and other people, and even now I edit the unsightly and inconvenient out of our origin story.

That night, though, he draped me in his grandfather’s overcoat and walked me through a city transformed, the edges rounded by snow and the peculiar dark magic of very early Christmas Eve.  We wandered into the East Village in the glimmer of traffic. I swore I heard churchbells when I gave in to his restless fingers. I figured it nothing more than a one-night stand, another chapter from my unwritten romance novel. In which our impoverished heroine accompanies the bruiser home to his tenement.

But the tenement turned out to be the nicest apartment I’d seen in New York, and the roughnecked chef the dissolute son of a famed studio executive and a failed actress.  Maybe if I’d been older, if it had not been a holiday, if I had not been alone and broke and hungry and bored and so stubbornly far from home, maybe if he’d been a worse lover, maybe he hadn’t been the only person I’d met in New York more committed to the fantasy than I, maybe I would have gone home.

As it was, I didn’t return to my apartment until New Year’s Day. Three weeks later, I moved in with him. By that time, I was very sure that ours was a hopeless, desperate, bound-for-misery love affair. I’d always thought I was too smart for that sort of thing, which probably made me more susceptible.

Youth might explain such folly, but I wasn’t that young. And Gabriel was thirty-odd years old with a teenager’s understanding of both love and physics. He never realized how things tended to slide toward entropy whenever he entered a room. I’m ashamed to admit I once found this appealing. He seemed the perfect antidote to a life lived split equally between stiff upper lips and affected disinterest. Gabriel could be a tyrant, a needling shit, and a one-man barbarian horde, but he bruised at a sidelong glance and loved like he’d lose me tomorrow.


I wash my hands in a restroom otherwise occupied by a sobbing woman. She’s about my age. I want to comfort her, but for all I know she might be here with Gabriel’s victim. So I offer a half-assed smile and concentrate on the shine of the porcelain sink until she shuffles out the door.

 Juliet enters, all voluminous scarves and skeletal fingers. She narrows her eyes and turns off the tap water.

“You’ve got to stop washing your hands, Lady Macbeth’ she says.

 Her blue eyes are quartersized and nearly inked over by pupil.

I glance at her bag.

 “Ready for something real?” she asks.

Nothing tonight feels real. Everything feels too real. But she’s talking about drugs.

 “What do you have?”

 She extracts a gold cosmetic bag full of pill bottles but stops shy of handing it off. “Maybe you should wait. Uncle Ducks thinks the lawyer might want to talk to you.”

  “I’m not sure what I’d say. I wasn’t there when it happened.”

“He knows. But they’re going to talk about what happens next. You know, jail, bail, trial, that sort of things. And you might want to be . . .”

“Sober? I don’t think so.” I reach for the bag.

She pulls back.  “Are you going to leave him?”

 I do not know the answer to this question.

“Because it would make sense. I mean, this is a lot to handle. I’m not even sure if I can handle it.  I’m sure you have thought about it.”

I hadn’t yet the focus to imagine leaving though it had an appealing, cowardly simplicity to it. Just leave. I could make neither heads nor tails of Juliet’s tone. It could have been a suggestion or an accusation. “Do you think I should?”


I look at us the mirror. We both look like people dressed from the panic closet. I’m not sure what to say to her or to anybody. I’m well out of my depth here. I say as much.

Juliet’s not much of an actress, so I know her sad face is genuine.

 I touch her arm. “I’m sorry.”

“I figured you’d have a plan,” she said. “You seem like the type.”

I shake my head. I haven’t made a plan in years. Improvise long enough and improvisation itself becomes the plan. I exit the bathroom and walk past Uncle Ducks trying to negotiate with the policemen.

I try not to look at Gabriel, but I’m sure he sees me, so I give this sort of lame half-smile. He raises a hand, but he’s handcuffed to the bed, which strikes me as both pathetic and kind of hilarious. For a second, I consider telling him so. I even know his response. It would be an anecdote about Big Sur that always makes embarrasses me, and we’d start planning that trip to Northern California we’ve been planning since we met. You’ll never take the time off, I’d say. And he’d demur and I’d accuse him of making excuses to avoid California. Maybe because our whole deal is based on the fiction that we are New Yorkers and fictive New Yorkers at that.  Then he would remind me that I’ve only taken him to Florida once, because my family embarrasses me and you would make my family uncomfortable. And we’d make promises and joke and tease our way back into what passes for normalcy.

Because nothing about this is normal.

Ducks groans following a policeman’s cautionary “Sir,” and steps out behind me.

 I slow until he catches up.

“This is a damn farce,” he says, loudly enough to be overheard. “You have a cigarette?”

 “A few.”

“Brave the cold with me?”

“Should we leave?”

 He rubs the bridge of his nose. I see his wedding ring. In all our late night meetings, it had never once occurred to me that he was leaving a spouse in the bed. Of course, Gabriel had never mentioned that Ducks had a wife, had a life at all outside of fixing his mistakes. “Nothing critical will happen in the next ten minutes unless your boyfriend attempts some sort of ill-conceived jailbreak, which I hope to Christ he’s not dumb enough to try.” We step past an extended family hustling through the Emergency Room doors. I think I see Juliet reflected in the glass, but I do not turn to wave.

It’s bitterly cold outside. The wind blows a steady gust. Ducks struggles with my matches, but once lit, he turns. I follow. We clear four blocks before he says anything. My hands are frozen. We’re not far from Gabriel’s restaurant that I wonder whether that’s the destination, if Ducks hopes to find a couple of tipsy waiters still dawdling at the bar this time of night, happy to add a couple to the chef’s tab. It’s not unappealing. I could drink to remove the edge. Might take vats, but I feel up to the challenge.

I light another cigarette from a lit tip and inhale. “I should tell you that I don’t have a plan. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“That’s fair. This is not the kind of thing a person really plans for. However . . .” He shrugs. “You’ve been with Gabriel for, what, three years?

 “Two and some change” I said

“Long enough know enough about him to know his weaknesses, his family, his past. “

“You’re saying I should have expected this.”

Ducks stubs his cigarette out and tosses the butt into a subway grate. “One always hopes for the best and prepares for the worst.”

 I shove my free hand deep in my pocket, trying to bring my fingers back to life. “What’s going to happen now?”

“Probably Gabriel will go to prison. For how long, I couldn’t say. It’ll be a slog, and Gabriel’s used up a lot of goodwill over the years. I’m not optimistic.”

I blink. There are ice crystals in the air. I try to remember that they are beautiful.

Ducks coughs. “When Gabriel’s father died, I swore I’d be there for the kids. I remember years ago when Gabriel was failing out of college and already familiar to the local police, I was the one that flew out to California and I told  him if college wasn’t working out, he didn’t have to finish. And he told me he hadn’t dropped out yet because he wanted to be a lawyer like me. A lawyer like me, for Chrissakes. He couldn’t even figure out why that was a bad idea.

“But he always liked cooking, even when he was a kid. So, I talked to him about culinary school, suggested he look into the restaurant business.  I set up him with his first job. Kitchens aren’t so picky about their cooks, so long as they work hard and I thought the hard work might take some of the fight out of him.” He chuckled. “I should have set him up as a boxer or a bodyguard. Maybe sent him to the military. You can’t deny that he has a gift for violence.”

“It’s not all he’s good at,” I say.

“No,” says Ducks, “but it does tend to overwhelm his better qualities.  And you’ll pardon me for saying , but I’m no longer sure that prison is the worst possible outcome here.”

 That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

 “Not the answer you’re looking for?” He shrugs. “Sorry.”

I take a drag and a glance upward. New York is mostly terrible for perspective. Even the most scenic views are mostly comprised of hubris and trash. 

 “What would you do? If you were me?”

 “I don’t see you making prison visits,” he says

“Juliet said the same thing, more or less.”

“Take it as a compliment.”    

I feel my pace slacken as we approach the hospital. The creeping ache of anxiety has settled into my system. There are cabs outside the ER doors. I could take one of them, though it’s a luxury I probably can’t afford without Gabriel’s contribution to my quality of life. That’s a whole other problem. Ducks unsheathes his wallet and offers me money.

“For a car,” he says.

“I couldn’t,” I say.

“Honey, it’s Gabriel’s money.”

“It’s not just that,” I say. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

Ducks gives a shrug with an audible component and we cross the street.

I could have expanded. I could have told this man, whose largest single occupation seems to be keeping my boyfriend and his family out of harm’s way, that Gabriel has spent the last two years providing the same service to me. Since that first January, when I gave my key to my inscrutable roommate and took three boxes and two suitcases to Gabriel’s apartment, I had not paid rent. I’d stopped looking for the kind of work that would pay a living wage. I’d grown accustomed to finding hundred dollar bills left in my coat pockets, in my cosmetic drawers, in the bottom of my bag.  I’d never believed myself equipped to be a kept woman. But I’m no good at struggle and it’s awfully easy to take what you’re given.

I blink and glance up briefly at the lights in the hospital.

 “What if I’m stuck?” I say.

.You’re not. When you want to move on, you will.” He pats my hand. “My guess is that it won’t to take you too long to work that out.”


I sit alone in a plastic chair at a small round table in the hospital cafeteria. In front of me is a napkin divided down the middle for a pro/con list I have not yet, nor will make. I imagine the tables around me all occupied by people drowning in grief, but in reality, the only person crying here is me, and not for my monstrous boyfriend or his victim or his victim’s family or the senseless tragedy of it all, though in my choking, sodden, shameful misery I can certainly conjure a pang on their behalf. Mostly, though, I’m crying for myself,  becauseI’m stupid and I should have never been here in the first place. I’m crying because I don’t want to deal with this. It’s not fair. I’m crying because I  feel guilty and sorry for myself and bonus guilty that sorry for myself is mostly what I feel.

The cute doctor from the waiting room fills a coffee mug and walks past my table. He nods. I bury my face further in my hands to muffle the sounds.

 “We have somebody you can talk to,” he says. “A grief counselor.”

 I look at him through my fingers. I’m sure he doesn’t remember who I am. “I’m not the bereaved. I’m the girlfriend of the . . .the bereaver?”

 He frowns. “Is that a word?”

It’s not, but I’m pretty sure I can’t say murderer yet. “I’ll be fine. It’s on me for dating him. It’s not like I didn’t know he was a psychopath.

The doctor glances at the wall.

“Jesus, I sound like a mob wife or something.” I thumb my cup against the table. “I’m not this kind of person. I’m not supposed to end up stuck in this situation. I mean, he’s a bully. And I don’t do anything. I didn’t do anything. And, I don’t even feel bad, I just accept it and pretend like it doesn’t affect me.”

The cute doctor swirled his coffee around and peers into his cup. I worry he might have read my fate in the grounds. “You know, if he’s ever hurt you, we have people that deal specifically with domestic violence . . .”

My first reaction is stunned silence, followed by laughter. It’s funny. It is really is. I only swallow the laugh when I notice the woman actually crying at the next table over. I look down at my hands—the chipped pink painted nails, the crescent moon shaped scar from a sixth grade curling iron accident, the blue shadow of yesterday’s ink spot on my middle finger, the complete lack of fighting wounds. My hands could not look more different than Gabriel’s. “Do I look like a victim?”

He blanches.

“Sorry. Don’t answer that,” I follow his eyes and figure he’s staring at a fading bruise on my forearm. It came from trying to negotiate a revolving door after too much wine at one of Juliet’s stupid readings. Gabriel hadn’t even been here, but there’s no way I could frame it without it sounding like an excuse.

“I’m not judging you,” he says.

I cough again and drink. The doctor has kind brown eyes and a sweet sober look about him. He wears flattering glasses and speaks in measured, England-inflected English. I wonder if he’s ever punched anyone in his life. I’m betting no.

“Gabriel never touched me. I mean, of course he touched me, but how I wanted.”

“I meant no offense,” said the doctor

I look at him, so clever and kind. He saves people’s lives, but something about the judgy set of his mouth makes me want to hit him. The doctor looks at his watch. I nod and watch him scurry away.


The long hallway flickers, a momentary surge in the florescent light. I smile at the policeman when I pass the door.

They have Gabriel dressed and standing up, head still bandaged, presumably to take him to the station, to jail.

“Rikers?” I ask the policeman.

He shrugs.

Gabriel’s eyes are as puffy as mine. His expression would appear childish on a nine year-old. And I kind of think that’s what he is, under all the swagger, and it makes me feel sorry for him and deeply frustrated and sort of like his mother.

“I’m sorry,” he says, as I pass. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could kiss you.”

I wish I could kiss him too, because I’m not sure I will again. And it would be nice to have one for the road. The cop to the right, sensing this, shakes his head.

I bite my lip and try not to feel. “I’m going to go now ,” I say. “I’ve got to take care of some things.”

He nods. “I don’t know what’s going on with all this, but I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe, hopefully, after they set bail.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I say.

One of the cops clears his throat. “Ma’am?”

Gabriel looks desolate in the light. I think he knows and worry for a moment that he might cry or call or and I step back, woozy.

“I love you, Caroline,” he says.

I swallow. I love him too.

“Goodnight, Gabriel,” I say.

I think, I’m sorry. I’m leaving.  

I leave.  


On his roof, in the snow, in the pre-dawn of Christmas Eve on that first night, warmed by coffee cups of whiskey and the blinding infatuation, I knotted my cold, mittened hands into fists and followed his amused directions as I swung at him. He bounced back and forth, like a boxer in a silent film and stepped back surprised when my fist made contact with his cheek. I couldn’t have hit very hard, but he was still tender from the night he ruined my dress. He rubbed his jaw and for a moment I worried he might swing back. That he might hit me. That he might hurt me. But he grinned and told me I had a good right hook. And it was the strangest thing, because I’d never felt so vulnerable before as I did in that moment. Any reasonable person would have been afraid. And yet, I wasn’t.

 He refilled my teacup with whiskey and took my hand.

“You think I have a future in the ring?” I asked.

“Totally,” he says. “You’ll knock them dead.”

I leaned into him and stared uptown at the scalloped hem of the Chrysler’s Building’s fancy dress.

“Piece of advice,” he said, stroking my hair. “ If anyone or anything ever comes at you that’s too big for you to handle, something that you know might fuck you up? Don’t stay there and try to fight it off. Just get the hell out. Run away.”

“You won’t think I’m a coward?”

“Self-preservation isn’t weakness.” He stood behind and wrapped his arms around me. “Promise me you won’t let yourself get hurt.”

I leaned back into him, under the rosy winter sky and banished all thoughts of fear and strangeness and insecurity.

“Even if its you that hurts me? I ask.

“Especially if it’s me.”

And even though, we barely knew each other.  I told myself I loved him. I told myself I belonged. I told myself I had nothing to fear.

“I promise,” I said.

And at the time, it didn’t even feel like a lie.

© Alison Fields, 2022

Conference Notes


It’s a Tuesday. A beautiful, sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in a Grand Ballroom in a Convention Center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast and a brief lesson about the history of almost wars between Russia and the US since World War II to a room full of professionals who would perhaps rather hear about hotel room occupancy rates or most effective marketing strategies on TikTok.

I don’t mind stroll down 20th Century History lane, because I’m infinitely more comfortable talking about the Cold War than I am about influencers or hashtags, and because it pulls me out of the current mire of morning meditations on topics ranging from I probably shouldn’t have eaten those fried pickles at the cocktail mingle last night to Is it fundamentally selfish to be disappointed by life? to I know it’s shallow but ‘networking’ sure would be easier if all these people were wearing band t-shirts. Because I can only break the ice by complimenting a stranger’s tasteful blonde highlights so many times.

You know you’re in a tough place when history, even bleak, late 20th century history, feels like a reprieve. I’m pretty sure that’s how people end up in Cults or Conservative Politics (or both), and I have 100% the wrong wardrobe for that kind of heel turn. I had a therapist once tell me that Depression lives in the past backward and Anxiety frets over the future. “Try and stay in the present. Count to five. Remember that right now you are fine.”


Right now.

Right now, the professor tells us, things wouldn’t look too, too bad were it not for the elephant in the room. An elephant none of us can yet fully quantify or qualify, but it could theoretically have start World War III and/or maybe throw a tantrum, hit a button and obliterate the planet. I’m paraphrasing. The economist doesn’t say “obliterate the planet.” That’s my line. I look around the room to see if anyone else is thinking it, but their make-up is too good, or their game faces too studied. Is it depression or anxiety to reconsider your Reagan-era plans for Living It Up In the Face of Mutually Assured Destruction and reflect on the changes? Like, I’m less sure I’ll be at the mall and I know I won’t be throwing myself at Kevin from Corn Dog 7, because both Kevin and Corn Dog 7 are long gone. But I might need to revive the playlist debate and try to figure out whether I want to go out plaintive, brazen, or down to party.

How’s that 80s nostalgia working out for you these days, babe?

But we’re living in the present. Take a breath. Don’t think about the elephants. Even though there are enough rhetorical elephants milling around the metaphorical room these days to launch a safari outfit. Consider your surroundings. The polyester convention center table cloths. The individual flower arrangements. The way the professor touches his glasses.  I look at my blouse. That’s a spot on my blouse. It’s a nice blouse, but maybe I look like a weirdo. Like a not cool weirdo. Like, is this blouse doing anything flattering for me? Do I look like a billowing sail stretched with wind and two years of unhealthy pandemic eating habits? Maybe. Am I just an old washed up whale, light years from sexy and dangerous? Have I ever looked sexy and dangerous, like, in my whole life? Don’t answer that question. I do have a good haircut, I think. Am I the only woman at this conference with short hair? Maybe. Maybe I can tousle my hair in a way that is sort of rakishly handsome? Is there a feminine equivalent of rakishly handsome? Do I need there to be? Don’t we live in a bold new age in which I can be both glamorous and feminine and rakishly handsome at the same? I should be bolder. I should be braver. I should look like I’m paying attention.

I think about a picture in the New York Times of a woman in the back of a military vehicle in Kyiv a few days after the invasion, while I was in my hometown for my birthday. The woman . She was wearing a puffy coat that looked like my puffy coat and winter boots that looked like my winter boots and crying while she held a machine gun. And maybe it’s because she looked to be around my age and she had my jacket and I cannot imagine a single scenario in which I would be handling a machine gun and not sobbing like a baby that I couldn’t get the picture out of my head. All weekend.  All week. All month. While I had cocktails and narwhal shaped birthday cookies and read by a fire at a spa in the mountains because I thought I was stressed. While I read the news and rehashed arguments and tried to figure out if it was foolish to keep doing the normal things or absolutely necessary. I thought about that woman. I think about that woman. I hope she’s alive.

These are historic times, the professor says. He’s not wrong. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stay in the present. A couple decades back, during Baby’s First Existential Crisis, when I was young without qualifier and inclined to view big H-History as a way to shore up my bleakest takes on the human condition, I figured it would be clever as hell to tattoo “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” on my arm. Fortunately I ran out of money before I doomed myself to that particular Hallelujah chorus of Cringe. Good for my arm. Better for my dignity.

I didn’t really get it then(and not just because I was, at the time, still working my way through the source material). I didn’t get that history was a thing you lived through–that it was present and future as well as past—because I was sheltered and naïve enough to think (and sometime lament) that history wasn’t thing that could happen to me.  

If there’s anything I have learned in the twenty-three odd calamitous years since, the thing I missed in all those books, is that history isn’t the elephant, it’s the room. We always forget we’re in it and we’re lucky when we can. So we’re always surprised when reminded where we are and how fragile and ephemeral those pockets of peace, how flimsy our status quo, how overwhelming and clamorous and difficult our world is. 

And yet.

It is a Tuesday. A beautiful sunny, slightly pollen-fogged spring morning in the North Carolina piedmont. I am in the Grand Ballroom at a convention center with more unmasked people than I have been in a room with since my last pre-plague rock show. There’s a retired college professor at a lectern on stage giving a mostly bleak economic forecast, but he’s going to try and end on a up note. He reminds us that nothing is carved in stone. Not the state of the economy or the state of the world or the state of my perhaps rakishly handsome haircut. The future, as the philosopher once said, is unwritten. And totally fucking terrifying.

But enough about anxiety.

Breath. Count to Five. Scribble notes. Clap.

Right now, I’m fine.

Plague Diary, January 28, 2022

COVID / Plague Diaries

My heart broke about seventeen days ago. 

It didn’t go the way I thought.

There was no swelling of plaintive strings, no tearful goodbye at a foggy morning train station, no devastating letter, no desolating moment of quiet desperation. I simply turned out a light, settled into a pillow, and instead of falling asleep, I worried, and fretted, and somehow conjured out of the darkness an occasional, random absence where once was a heartbeat. I tossed and turned. I did breathing exercises. I worried I was having a heart attack. I worried about having to go to the hospital during an Omicron wave if I was having a heart attack. I worried about whether the EMT’s would have break down my front door, or whether the cat would get out, if I had to call 911. I worried my insurance wouldn’t cover the ambulance ride. I worried that I would die. I worried even more that I wouldn’t die but would be forced to live a miserably circumscribed lfe. I listened to my heart beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. A whoosh like going over a roller coast. A thud I felt more than heard.

I slept fitfully that night, in between and around the bends, maybe an hour and a half total. I had a doctor’s appointment the next day. I googled Congestive Heart Failure after the doctor told me I was healthy. I went for a long walk. The more my heart rate went up with exercise, the less I noticed it the missing beats. “A good sign!” said the doctor. But it felt crappy. I went to bed, I didn’t sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

I won’t take you through the rest of this. The only thing more boring than writing about health anxiety is reading about health anxiety (although there are some hilarious bits out there in Hypochondriac Google. My favorite was the one that stated feelings of impending doom could also be symptoms of a heart attack, which means we should all have a cardiologist on speed dial in the Year of Our Lord 2022, I guess). Short version: two more doctor visits, an EKG and a bunch of lab work suggesting that whatever is happening to me (TBD sometime next week when I mail in a dental floss dispenser-shaped monitor button that I’ve worn taped to my chest since last Wednesday, with instructions to PUSH THE BUTTON whenever something weird happens) is that it’s probably not immediately life threatening . But, you know, it feels weird and it’s not getting better. Though I’m sleeping again, the phantom heartbeat is really messing with my days now. I’ve been advised to try breathing exercises, to relax, to find an activity to take my mind off things, to meditate, to sit quietly. But it’s while I’m sitting quietly that all monsters who steal my heartbeats are most ravenous. It’s while I’m sitting quietly, counting my breaths that I feel the most disconnected and the least like a human being.

I was going to turn this into a kind of joke, wait until the final report, no matter how benign or grim, so I could tell you guys that the last two years have officially broken my heart. But I don’t think I need a specialist to tell me what is so manifestly obvious. Maybe non-broken hearted people drive around for hours at a time just to pretend the heated seat in a car is another human body and that they’re actually going somewhere when it is not sensible or advisible or responsible to go anywhere at all. Maybe non-broken hearted people get so upset about a book banning in Tennessee they do 45 minutes of rage tears in an empty parking lot they drove to just to sit in an empty parking lot. Maybe non-broken-hearted people also feel hopeless about the state of the world right now ( is any sane person not battling hopelessness right now?) but it probably doesn’t catch in their throat and flutter around their chest like a whole battalion of deranged moths against a single bright paper lantern.

Maybe none of that matters because everybody is broken-hearted right now, whether or not their ticker  got a backbeat that can’t lose it or is taking extended free jazz drum solos at 3am. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life harder than right now. I don’t say that lightly. And I say that with full recognition of the fact that I am not living through war (yet) or famine or truly debilitating illness. I am warm and fed. I have a soft bed that hasn’t broken in at least two weeks. I have firewood and a pond view and a fat orange cat who only really hates me when I play the piano. I have seen friends(though, to be honest, only a few, only once in the last month-ish). I have internet access that theoretically allows me to do all the things that we do, as humans, to be humans (see performances, talk to people—and even see them, watch movies, take classes, shop, play games etc), and that should be enough. That should be enough.

But, like, it’s not, right? Not really. Not after two years. And I refuse to feel guilty about saying so. Sure, it could be worse. Sure, I know I’m doing the right thing. But it sucks. There’s a pane of glass and bunch of wires, to say nothing of miles, between me and the people I love, to say say nothing of the people I haven’t met. There’s that whole restless, uncanny valley effect that comes with having 99.9% of your human contact come through Zoom meetings. There’s the sameness of the days, when even the things I do to relieve the rote sameness of days have become rote. There is the fact that it snows every weekend, which prevents even the illusion of being able to do something different (buying a house in the burbs at the bottom of a big hill has it’s downsides, pun intended). I don’t think I’ve gone totally off the deep end, but my dreams feel 1000% more like real life right now than my waking hours. Because in my dreams, I am in crowds of people. I am sitting beside them. I am existing in a hubbub. I feel normal. I am unweighted by grief. I might even be surprised by novelty—a new street, a new friend, a new place in the world. I might do something unexpected. In my dreams I can explore freely and take comfort in tangible reminders that I exist in the world.  Then I wake up. And the heart does the thing.

So this is my sad state of affairs. What’s yours? Because odds are it’s maybe similar. Or worse. Or similar but different. Or different but worse. Maybe it’s the silence you crave because you can’t get away from your family. Maybe it’s the metaphorical desert island you crave because you’re still going into work every day and having to deal with customers or patients or whatever percentage of the population, who by choice, denial, recklessness, responsibility or necessity, still operates out in the world. Whatever the case, I’ve probably done a piss poor job asking you about it. The malaise makes it hard to reach out. On a bad day, we all need someone to check in, but what if we’re all having a bad day every day? That’s a lot to ask of a lot of people.

Traditionally, when catastrophe happens, we kind of come together, even if we come together just to hunker down. Because by simply being together, I think it makes it easier to process whatever awful shit is coming at us and the mess it leaves behind because it gives some sense of collective engagement and shared grief. The deli that puts out fresh coffee after the hurricane knocks the power out in the rest of town. The bar that’s bright and warm the day after a blizzard. The coffeeshop you go to on mornings of mass and scary crisis because you know other people will be there, even if none of them can figure out what to say. It also gives us actual, not virtual, not theoretical access to people that are not exactly like us. And those people sometimes offer the perspective we need to get out of our heads and un-mired from our particular variety of bullshit.

I’m not saying that the key to chasing away the blues in Pandemic Year Three is running out in the world all willy nilly. I may need variety in my life, but I’d rather it not come in the form of sickness or bigotry or people being assholes. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re as divided as we’ve ever been after being told to guard our social circles and keep our distance for two solid years. It’s wise public health advice, but it’s no wonder we turn inward and let our brains start embroidering all our worst ideas. We get lethargic and indifferent. We turn fighty and afraid. We retreat further in, and after a while, it starts to feel inconvenient or impolite or unpleasant to engage, even though it’s the thing we need most.

This is the part where I would have some kind of pithy wrap-up if I were a social scientist or a self-help writer. I’m neither of those things. So I won’t. And I am sorry this is so bleak. I thought January 2021 was pretty much the nadir, but then there was still real hope that it might end, or at least mostly end. That we might have something like a real life again. That we might be able to think of a single thing to look forward to without have to emotionally prepare for it falling apart. Then it did, sort of, for a minute or two, and sometimes I think it’s worse now because we all thought, for a minute, that we might have a real honest-to-god reprieve.

I hope I might be able to learn how to coast from disappointment to catastrophe to fiasco to disappointment without losing my rhythm, without dropping the beats, and by so doing, be better comfort to the people I love and the people that just need to know there is someone else out there thinking about them and empathizing and wanting so desperately to say call them when they’re freaking at 3am and say:  

“So, look, it’s going to be okay. This, this mess of everything at the same time? It’s manageable. We will do our best to get through it because we have to have those dinner parties and music and joy and love on the other side. And we’re the ones who are going to make sure that happens.”

In the meantime, sorry I haven’t returned your text.

I promise I’ve read every word.

And I’m still here.

Photo today: Cute new sweater. Heart monitor thing.

Plague Diary: December 20, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

Early in our new dark age, when I still vacillated between making Chaucer Jokes and wondering if we’d have bloody food riots because of pandemic-related shortages at the supermarket, I wrote almost daily about what I was experiencing stuck alone in my house with a fat cat, a Zoom subscription and a couple handles of gin. Then as the seasons changed as did the frequency, what was once a daily mediation on anxiety, morality and the simultaneously lonely vastness and suffocating intimacy of being a person in the center of history drifted toward the more pressing, became a thing I punched out a couple days a week, in response to news headlines or panic attacks, then weeks, then months In August I posted something about a broken exercise bike. In the beginning, I wrote these because I couldn’t think of anything else to do than to write this stuff down. And then for a time, I stopped writing about it because what else was there truly to say other than, I look forward to the days the pandemic is over.

To be clear, I wasn’t being overly optimistic. I knew it would be a slog, but I did believe we were drifting toward that moment, slowly perhaps, maybe too slowly to be counted. So I recalibrated to I look forward to the days when will not feel compelled to write about this pandemic anymore. I even thought I’d maybe reached that moment, when I started a few of these in October and then exiled them to the “Permanently Stalled Out. Can Safely Self-Plagiarize From This File, Dude” folder.

And here we are. In the first act of the latest disaster spectacular from the same virus who brought you Long Covid and The Delta Variant. Are we calling it Omigeddon? Armecron? A few days ago, I saw someone had typed it as Omnicorn, and I didn’t hate it. Sounds like a robot unicorn or a biodiesel company or maybe one of those giant, wastebasket sized tins of different varieties of (and often already stale) flavored popcorn that someone would give your parents for the holidays and it wouldn’t be particularly good, but you’d eat it anyway, even though it was fattening and got stuck in your braces. I like that one. Feels seasonal.

On the -5 Day of Christmas, Covid brought to me a PCR Test in advance of going home. This is supposed to be a formality, one of those last minute just to be totally safe moves to bolster my confidence about seeing family and celebrating something like a normal holiday the latter half of this week. But it takes about one character of a headline for me to be sailing through squalls of anxiety about it, despite being double-vaxxed and boostered. Impending Disaster is the flavor of the season. I swear I can taste it my egg nog, or maybe I just overdid the nutmeg.

It’s not like this train hasn’t been screaming into the station for a few weeks. Because I’m too impolite or too much of a masochist to turn off Gray Lady DOOM alerts at family events, I first learned that Omicron was neither a robot nor shorthand for a disgraced fraternity sometime between cranberry sauce and macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving. I supposed the soupcon of panic-induced stomach acid helped in the digestion of so many carbs.

I drove home sad and angry that we were heading back into match of Worst Case Scenario Bingo, and was made even sadder and angrier that I wasn’t even surprised about it. I called a friend on the way home and we discussed whether, if Omicron were as ominous as it seemed, anyone might try to reinstate lockdown measures, which seemed sane, but unlikely as it would send the gun nuts and conspiracy theorists once more to the breach.

“It annoys me that I wonder will this lead to civil war when think about the possibility of a enforcing a federal vaccine mandate,” I said to a friend.

“It annoys me that I now wonder will this lead to civil war every time I read anything on the internet. Black Friday sales. Marvel movie reviews. PTA meeting notes. NextDoor Posts. Taylor Swift tweets” said a friend. “But, you know, the times.”

The times.

I wish I could be so blasé about it, but you guys know I’m not. For the last six days, even before the Omicron cases started doubling and then doubling doubling doubling in the US, I have been at least halfway convinced I’ve been having a heart attack all the time. I know. Hilarious. The still barely-rational part of my brain knows that people don’t have heart attacks for six days straight, and that whatever twinge of chest pain only improves with exercise and feels entirely attached to my nervous gurgling stomach. This is a case for more Pepcid, less caffeine and cheese, and maybe a trip to the GI on the backside (no pun intended) of the holidays.

But it’s weird how the Impending Disaster gets into your head, right? How googling Heart Failure at 3am after waking up from a bad dream for a middle of the night round of doom-scrolling (it’s back) doesn’t seem so crazy? How refusing to listen to the Charlie Brown Christmas record again until you know absolutely, 100% for sure that nothing’s upside down in your own little world and you are on the way celebrate holiday with your family doesn’t sound like childish superstition? How you don’t even want to think about the future anymore because the best case scenario is “it’s going to suck for a while, maybe suck a lot, for a long while, and then perhaps it will get better, perhaps for a short period of time?” How you’ve already started working on a New Year’s Resolution list consisting of simply, 1) Try to imagine this catastrophe is something you know you can get through” and 2) Start working on your sigma variant material soon-ish?

Christmas stories usually end on a up note. You know, choirs of angels, a bright star to guide them, a note from Santa Clause, Zuzu Bailey explaining the afterlife, Hans Gruber falling out of a skyscraper window. You know, joyful shit. I can’t promise that. I can give you only a little tinsel around a the big honking probably sucky unknown that is the coming days, weeks, and months. Also eggnog. Maybe a hot toddy if you stay for a nightcap.

So Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. I hope we get where we’re going, wherever that is, with whatever joy we can wring out of this bullshit chapter of history. To quote the philosopher, let your heart be light. Or at the very least, try not to give yourself a heart attack by worrying about it.

In the meantime, I look forward to the days when will not feel compelled to write about this pandemic anymore.

Picture today is Walter, my cat, under the Christmas tree, where he believes he lives now.

My Year In Reading

Books / Lists

Books of 2021 (or 2021)ish

Matrix Lauren Groff

A historical novel set in the 12th century about Breton lais, sword-fighting nuns, the creation of a feminist utopia and borderline metaphysical lesbian romances that also features Eleanor of Aquitaine as bitch goddess from the ripe imagination of a contemporary American author who has mostly made her name writing about doomed romances in Florida and communes. One of my favorite surprises in just about forever.

Alls Well Mona Awad

In which a failed actress confronts chronic pain, medical bullshit, her own middle age, and actual witchcraft that sits in the perfect middle between campus novel and backstage novel. A deeply weird retelling of at least two Shakespeare plays. Darkly hilarious. Unexpectedly moving.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch Rivka Galchen

I liked this book more than most people I know, so take this as you will  This is a surprisingly readable, literal witch hunt book featuring the fictionalized matter-of-fact mother of Johannes Kepler and a whole lot of gossipy townspeople in late Reformation/pre Thirty Years War era Germany. Maybe the best book I’ve read this year about the challenges of being an ally.

The Bass Rock Evie Wyld

A multi-generational not-quite Gothic that addresses women and ghosts and violence and community complicity, while also brushing right up against borderline Folk Horror (without actually going all the way). But that makes it sound like it’s less enjoyable to read than it is. This would make a killer (no pun intended) miniseries, if Olivia Colman/anyone at the BBC is paying attention, but you might as well read it beforehand in the event that they are.

A Girl Is A Body Of Water Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is my favorite Ugandan novelist (and if you haven’t read her Kintu, a sprawling, glorious, furious fusion of African folklore, history and modern day politics, YOU ARE IN FOR A TREAT). A Girl Is A Body of Water is a more straightforward coming of age novel meets family saga the encompasses the tied together fates of an entire village and the nation of Uganda in the pre/during/post-Idi Amin era.

The Trees Percival Everett

It’s not a spoiler to say that premise of this book involves the mystery of whether the corpse of Emmett Till is murdering racists in modern day Mississippi. It’s also not a spoiler to say that this is initially rolled out as a farce. And there is brutal method to its madness. I think Percival Everett is one of the greatest writers working today, period, hands down. And I think this book is brilliant.

Hot Stew Fiona Mozley

I’m going to level with you: I think Brits are so much better at weird than we are. They’re better at weird country and definitely better at weird city, even in narrative works that are nominally “realistic fiction.” “Hot Stew” is A+ London Weird about whores, billionaires and borderline Dickensian street characters that manages to be probably the best thing I’ve read this year about gentrification. Also (not that we’re keeping track): contains a surprising spin on the old “Visit to the Underworld” genre.

Summerwater Sarah Moss. An unsettling cloudy, damp mood of a novel set at a remote Scottish vacation hub that operates as both as a collage of finely honed character studies and a surprisingly incisive view into how otherness is determined within a community.

Harlem Shuffle Colson Whitehead. For anyone who’d forgotten that a Colson Whitehead novel (always brilliant, riveting, often-award winning etc)  could also be, like, a pretty fun hang, this spin on a mid-century, not-quite-noir-ish heist/crime novel will be a happy surprise.

Flyaway Kathleen Jennings. Have you ever been like “hey, what if Angela Carter moved to Australia and wrote a gothic horror novella about body horror and families and a small town at the edge of the bush?” You’ll like this, then,

The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War Michael Gorra. Not everyone feels as strongly about Faulkner as I do. Especially now. That’s fine. But if you’re so inclined, this is one of the best pieces of Faulkner criticism I’ve read in years, as well as being a timely investigation of the US Civil War in the public imagination. And I say this as someon largely allergic to reading books about the Civil War.

St X Alexis Schaitkin. A literal and figurative beach book, this page-turner about young woman’s murder and her sister’s attempts to make sense of it feels particularly meaningful in this era of True Crime-obsessives and the often-problematic narratives they weave.

The Committed Viet Thanh Nguyen.  This is a Paris-set sequel to The Sympathizer, which you should have already read by now. Spies, expats, immigrants, and an entire criminal underworld populate a story about what it’s like to have spent a life in service to state and ideology and have survived to see the other side with all of its challenges.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe. As well as being the man behind the only podcast about German Hair Metal, the Berlin Wall and the CIA you ever need to listen to , Keefe is quickly becoming my new go-to in unmissable narrative journalism/non-fiction tomes. This one, which addresses the rise of the Sackler Family, their oversized footprint on the medical marketing and opioid industries (and the New York Art World), as well as the unfolding of opioid epidemic they created is a broad, highly readable, infuriating tragedy turned catastrophe.

My Year Abroad Chang-Rae Lee. This novel vacillates between  over-the-top picaresque about a naïve student and his relationship with his successful “international businessman” mentor (it’s best not to ruin the surprise, of there are many) and a unusually poignant fugitive family narrative. I like this book better and better the further I get away from it.

The Cold Millions Jess Walter. It’s either an organized crime novel about lumber barons and radical union politics in early 20th century Spokane or a radical union novel about organized crime in early 20th century Spokane. Either way, it’s a cinematic barn-burner of a yarn. Note: do not read when trying to get warm.   


Crossroads Jonathan Franzen. Let’s get this out of the way. Crossroads is the best book Jonathan Franzen has published since The Corrections. Is it a solid read? Yes. Did I finish it in a day? Yes. Did I, at various points, think– “Is this were I wholly come back around on the Old Franzenator?”  Sure. Was I ever able to forget its essentially Franzen-ness and surrender wholly to the project? No. Am I 100% sure I think you should give it a go? Not at all.

Harrow Joy Williams. It’s possible to be one of my favorite authors and write a book thick with things I enjoy and still leave me profoundly lukewarm. Also, we live in a dystopian wasteland. I don’t need to imagine any new ones.

Beautiful World, Where Are You Sally Rooney. The best parts of this book are the emails and the orgasms. Whether you find them convincing and/or satisfying is your call. I think I’m going to really enjoy whatever Sally Rooney writes in about twenty years. In the meantime, we can all having a good time arguing about the end of the this book.

No One is Talking About This Patricia Lockwood. I adore Patricia Lockwood. I think the front half of this book is a (very witty, engaging) troll and the back half is an absolute joke. It’s still one of the best written things I’ve read this year. But do I kind of hate it? Yes, I kind of hate it.

Note: 1) There are plenty of books I have not read this year, including a few that have won the big prizes. 2) I also read a lot of great books not published particularly recently. I did not include these because chronology. 3) I might change my mind. It happens.

Fall On Me

Nostalgia / Personal History

About six days ago, the nighttime temperature dropped, the humidity resolved itself, and the leaves on the maple over my deck trended scarlet. Fall, it would seem, timed its arrival to actually hit on the autumnal equinox—a rare state of affairs here in the North Carolina Piedmont, where it’s not regular sweater weather until sometime after Halloween. People rejoiced. Scarves were unearthed. Jackets unpacked. Some clamored for pumpkin spice. Others made fun of people clamoring for pumpkin spice. I pulled out a pair of boots for the first time since April and found the prospect of reintegrating them into my wardrobe bittersweet. On one hand, I love those boots (and boots in general). On the other hand, au revoir warm, lulling breezes and those long rosy summer dusks that fade out so slowly they might as well last for weeks. Those are the best.

I tell people I’ve never been much of a fall person. That’s not entirely accurate. Truer to say that fall lost most of its charm around the time when it ceased to revolve around buying school supplies.  I can still close my eyes and summon the sweetish, plasticky scent of the kitten-fronted Trapper Keepers I coveted in elementary school. I remember running my fingers along the stacks at the dime store, begging my mother, insisting that organization my papers in any system outside the trademarked trapped and kept would doom me to a lifetime of failure and ignominy (she held out on me for years, and by the time I finally got one, the cool kids had moved on hand stickered binders and vintage composition books).

For me, actual school—nasty, brutish, and interminable– never lived up to its colorful pencil boxed promise until I was well past novelty Sanrio erasers.  But I think there’s still an ingrained anticipation built into the season. Like, it’s been two decades since I’ve been on any kind of academic calendar, but I still kind of believe the real start of the New Year begins somewhere between August 15 and September, depending on snow days or school district. Thus the moment for me to change my life comes not in the hungover anticlimax of New Year’s Day but around the time the first cool wind of the season disturbs the short hairs on the nape of my neck. That’s when I get that first nostalgic whiff of actual autumn, which, for me, smells more like musty wool and cigarettes than cloves and cinnamon, and I think, hmm, maybe I should try to read Proust again.

It’s appropriate that Fall 2021 hit me at about 8pm this past Saturday, twenty minutes into a Covid-friendly front yard screening of “Dead Poets Society,” a film defined as much by its pervasive and poetic fall-ness as it is by its actual position on poetry. If you’ve missed it, it tells of a repressive traditional boarding school in 1959 that hires a charismatic young teacher, (played by Robin Williams at the peak of his manic, yet sensitive English teacher phase). This teacher opens his students hearts and minds through the power of literature. They reject the rigid bounds of their masculine mid-century milieu to explore artistic and romantic passions (with limited success). There are feelings aplenty, as well as inexplicable indoor bagpipes, corporal punishment, gorgeous sweaters and ominous, synth-soundtracked duffel coats, a climactic tragedy, and an absolutely intoxicating“New England” (technically Delaware) landscape that should probably be scheduled as a controlled substance. Never has boarding school looked so beautiful, nor rich white boys so sympathetic. And as a bonus, it’s a fine, comparatively restrained Robin Williams performance that feels impossibly poignant following his own tragic demise in 2014.

“Dead Poets Society” is a film so braided into my personal history, adolescent edition, that any objective discussion of its actual failures and merits is almost certainly impossible for me. It was a huge factor in determining the middle third of my teenage years, the places where I thought I wanted to go, the things I thought I wanted to try, the sensitive, the sensitive, floppy-haired boys I wanted to date, the sensitive floppy-haired boys I wanted to be. I hold it in esteem. I hold it responsible. I honestly have no idea how my early teenaged life would have played out if I hadn’t seen it at 13 ½ years old.

I wasn’t alone in any of these things. There were, in those days at least, a lot of us. The micro-generation old enough to see both “Say Anything” and “Dead Poets” in the theater (or slightly later on VHS) and young enough to find their young male protagonists wholly plausible models of what high school boys might be like. You might find us sneaking out of slumber parties to read poetry aloud in someone’s moonlit front yard, discussing which of the film’s afore-mentioned sensitive, floppy haired Dead Poets was our favorite (mine was Neil) as we failed the President’s Physical Fitness test for the umpteenth consecutive year. You might see us eyeing sweater vests and tweed skirts at the mall, as if owning such items would confer some charmingly androgynous, bookish, WASPy glamour onto our pudgy, acned, middlebrow, middle class, Middle American selves (see also: The Secret History not long after). Even a few years later at heavily body-pierced Peak Irony, when we’d cringe at having ever liked something so unabashedly sincere, there was always some otherwise apex-tier punk rock kid around who would get drunk and go on about how “Dead Poets” had saved their life.

It was an embarrassing confession then, years before it occurred to anyone that maybe fawning over extravagant white privilege was perhaps the greater sin than being a cornball with a Carpe Diem branded dorm-door whiteboard. Rewartching “Dead Poets Society” in 2021 really put the awkward and poorly-aged in high relief. Individually they are small complaints (although Nuwanda and the delivery of that Vachel Lindsay “Congo” poem? Not a great look). A friend a few years north of the critical Dead Poets demographic at Saturday’s screening took particular umbrage at the very idea that the floppy-haired, entitled sons of the old money elite needed any additional to express themselves without reservation (the word “ejaculation” might have been used). Because isn’t that what they are empowered do already?

His was a fair criticism, even if it, like all fair criticisms of beloved, if somewhat challenging nostalgic totems put me on the defensive. I gave some half-hearted spiel about queer subtext and the laudable aim of directing young men toward, like, art and feelings instead of, like, banking, war and country clubs. It sounded like bullshit because it was a dodge. Because the thing I loved so much about “Dead Poets Society, the thing that I felt defensive about was that I still found it comforting. Because I still remember the way I found its color palette, its scenery–so evocative you could almost smell the damp leaves and woodsmoke and floor polish in the classroom—its lovely, overachieving, sensitive boys (who could be all mine without me having to compete with any rogue Diane Courts), and the kind, intuitive Robin Williams performance that was honestly everything I ever wanted my father or my teacher or any older male authority figure, really, to be with me. I wanted to slip right into that world, wholly imaginary and problematic as it was and is and hover on the edge of a perfect, brisk October morning, noisy with dumb poems and the clamor of passing geese.

And I did, too, for a minute. I spent three years in a world, slightly more diverse and significantly more coed than the school in “Dead Poet’s Society,” but close enough in character that I personally attest to what those wood floors smelled like and how it felt to play sports on fields that looked like matte paintings. I even had my own Mr Keating or two, though neither particularly inclined toward Whitman-esque self-regard. The boys were suitably floppy haired, but generally more caustic, a result, perhaps, of less Keats and more Fugazi (the most representative floppy-haired, sensitive prep school boy of my age cohort is/was probably Beto O’Rourke—make of that what you will), and like most real-life human beings, somewhat less enamored of adolescent me than my “Dead Poets”-inspired fantasy life would have allowed.

There’s a lot of that experience I treasured, both in the moment and in retrospect, though like the movie that inspired me to go, my high school experience summons a little cringe and a lot of awkward, especially over the last few years when its own pristine autumnal façade has been sullied by allegations of abuse. I never donated to my school’s annual fund, but I did encourage parents to send their kids there. I did write, and talk, repeatedly about how much it meant to me, in that moment, at that time, and try to figure out whether it launched me into something better and brighter or doomed me to being perennially disappointed by the fact that real life is seldom so picturesque.  

To be honest, I don’t know how to talk about all of that now, so I mostly try not to. Which is hard. I’ve built a fair chunk of identity and personal narrative foundation on my “Dead Poets Society” years. Strategically stripping context away from my past feels about as bogus as it does ineffective. But it’s also probably true I would have bought school supplies. I would have crushed on the same number of boys that didn’t notice. I would have dreamed myself into movies and felt the same way about New Order’s “Temptation” if I’d first danced to it in a place without so many ties and so much baggage. The leaves would have changed and I might have found somewhere more accommodating and less restrictive than the place I thought I needed to be.

Plague Diary: August 24, 2021

Plague Diaries

My mother calls them chihuahuas. The incidental problems jumping and nipping at your heels. They’re not big enough to take you down, but they can be annoying, and it doesn’t take many to trip you up and force you to fall. She’ll lament—the chihuahuas—at the end of a long day, exhausted. She’ll fix a martini to mute the yapping, and hope maybe, by the next day, they’ll have run after a new target and cleared the lawn so she can clean up the mess and put in whatever safeguards to keep them from coming back.

Mom’s also a detail person. “A virgo,” she tells me, even though I find astrology slightly less reliable than I do closing my eyes and flipping through the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde when I’m looking for answers (I will admit to doing this). But if it matters to you, I’m a picses. I’m also a big picture person. I don’t usually notice the baseboards are dirty, but I can reliably bring myself to tears looking at pictures of outer space or imagining what it must be like to see elephants in the wild. Also, I like chihuahuas.  One of my favorite dogs in the world is a chihuahua, a dreamy fluffy black and white creature, who looks like a sled dog for gnomes and behaves like an exceedingly polite social butterfly.

It might be a function of getting older. It might be a function of getting older and becoming more like my mother (on a recent visit to the Wildean oracle, I did get “All women become like their mothers”).  It also might be a function of just, like, losing my ability to function after how many months are we again? Seventeen? I don’t remember. I stopped marking days on the wall because it made me feel morbid, and I own just enough Cure records that don’t need any extra excuse to feel morbid.

The creeping dread is back though, along with the worry sirens. I didn’t have enough of a reprieve to even catch my breath before people are talking about the Greek alphabet and how we’re going to have to spend the rest of our everloving lives keeping six feet apart outside, masked, uphill, in the snow, or whatever. Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you agai—oh, yes I did hear about Afghanistan. Thanks.   

And the @#$%ing chihuahuas. They’re out in packs. There’s the work stuff. There’s the house stuff. There’s the social stuff. There’s the life stuff. I can’t seem to get anything fixed. Sometimes because it takes forever (my bed, after six weeks out, has held me for two nights). Sometimes because I don’t know even who to call. Sometimes because I’m doing it all wrong. Sometimes because I don’t know what I want to be doing or how I want to be doing it, and I suspect, at the end of the day it doesn’t even matter. My mom wondered why I hadn’t gotten around to fixing the garage door, the front door. Did I ever send back the vaccum she sent me some months ago as a gift?

No. Because I don’t know who to call and I don’t have the money. Because I don’t know what to say is wrong. Because I suspect I’ll inconvenience someone and they won’t fix it and I won’t have the energy or wherewithal to fight with them about it. Because I don’t have the energy and wherewithal to fight with anyone right now. And every now and then, something finally goes a little bit right for a minute, then it breaks worse than it was broken before

Today’s example: I bought this exercise bike. Like, you know. The very thing I always swore I’d never do.  I did it so I could cancel my gym membership in the middle of a pandemic that now feels endless, and we’re had these 105 heat index days and meetings keep happening in the early morning, and I gotta get some exercise somehow to stay sane. So I pull out the credit card and lob off another shot into debt and it gets delivers. It takes me forever to get the bike together and it was super heavy, but I did it myself, because I am a functional adult human being and I think I can put a bike together. And it was great—like surprisingly great– for ten, eleven days.

Then among the many chihuahuas of today, it broke. It broke in a way that I don’t know how to fix. I don’t know if I can fix it. I also don’t know how to return an 80 pound bike that I bought online, or if I can return an 80 pound bike that I bought online or if the reason why it broke was because I didn’t assemble it correctly in the first place. And the terrible, no good, very bad voice in the back of my head is all “it broke because you’re a fatso, fatso” and I find myself in the middle of the day when I have so much to do, so many better things I could be doing, reasonably healthy and privileged and all that shit,  unmoored by nothing, sitting in my house crying over a broken exercise bike pedal like a complete child, because all the nothings just pile up overtime, until I’m in some Collyer Brothers mansion of chihuahuas that feel like a drowning risk, at best.

Cue sad trumpet.

Maybe that’s the better word for the chihuahuas. The sad trumpets. The whomp-whomps. The scenes half-played for laughs because they’re so trivial.

I get that I’m not alone. Life is mostly struggle, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s exceptionally hard right now for most of us. Each little thing takes so much out of you. And that’s before you have worry about how to argue with the guy you need to fix your chihuahua/sad trumpet situation about the proper way to wear his mask (the A/C guy who came to fix that last week when it went out—honestly more of a terrier situation during a historic heat wave—could not be bothered to pull it over his nose) and whether he’ll be a dick about it. And that’s way before the big dogs start snarling and wolves start howling. ‘

I’ve always been pretty good at ambling through Big Chaos. I freak out at the beginning, but eventually I find my pace and keep on keeping on with the notion that at some point the chaos subsides, and I can have a chance to catch my breath.

Maybe I’ll figure out how to fix something in my life.

Maybe I’ll actually get one thing done today.

Maybe the dogs will disperse and the sad trumpet will get kinda jazzy.

Maybe, just around the next bend, the road will smooth out and the clouds will part.

Please get vaccinated.

Postscript: I heard the news about Charlie Watts while writing this. I am a (mostly) unabashed Rolling Stones fan. What a complete bummer. R.I.P.

Plague Diary: August 4, 2021

COVID / Plague Diaries

That was nice, right?

In the fifteen weeks since second vaccination, still wearing masks inside, but like, kinda, sorta, almost living my best life, crossing state lines, hugging people, eating out, going to the bar all willy nilly without a care in the world. Well, pretending to not have a care in the world because throughout I was still reading the news as soon as I woke up every morning, and still looking at vaccine counts and case counts and holy moly, Delta Variant would have made such a good album title/drag name/punk rock moniker/ sci-fi novel/ Obscure Mississippi travel blog/“Designing Women” fanzine if this bullshit hadn’t happened, right?

So I knew. I mean, I knew. But you’ve really got to squeeze those lemons bone dry to enjoy a decent lemonade before our collective summer break ends because a surging virus and a large unvaccinated population will force you back into unofficial Safe at Home because they’ll continue on maskless, unvaccinated until they get infected and maybe in process summon up some new increasingly vaccine-resistant variant [Epsilon? Zeta? Throw in a couple of polo shirts and Rubbermaid tub of fruit punch and grain alcohol and we’re perilously close to the worst fraternity party in history) and SHOULD I START HOARDING GIN AND JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD AGAIN?

Maybe. I don’t know. You probably don’t either. Because odds are if you’re reading this, you’re as flummoxed as I am. It seems like all anyone can talk about is how everybody knows someone with Covid now, including all your infected and vaccinated friends who have never broken the rules or questioned the science or dined inside  (Bless me, Fauci, for I have sinned, it’s been five months since my last PCR test), and yet the vaccine is working, or working enough, or working the way it should and we’re overreacting or the media is overreacting or. .

Like, I’m going to return to the willfully unvaccinated–the freedom fanboys, the injection averse, the opportunistic death cultists for a sec. Is the plan that we all follow the rules and hide out and just wait for them to what? Figure it out? I mean, I guess self-preservation is the name of the game at this point—I don’t want Covid and I really, really don’t want Long Covid– but I’m also not sure that waiting until every single one of them gets sick enough for a cinematic change of heart and we can wag our collective fingers and say “I told you so” is the best strategy out of this pandemic?

Is that the strategy?

Is there a strategy?

I trust the science and acknowledge that science is a process, and that sometimes, even, especially when it’s extremely inconvenient, that process is long, complex and demands both patience and humility. That’s a beautiful idea, and I believe it. But, for real, how do you translate that for a vaccinated and understandably anxious vaccinated friend who just wants to know whether it’s still safe to go inside her vaccinated aging mother’s house? Should she wear a mask? Should her mother? Should they both be tested?

“Should I go ahead and risk it now in case things get so much worse that I won’t be able to for another year?”

I didn’t have an answer, but I moved my hair appointment up a few weeks just in case.

In other news, I did not go to Lollapalooza, which feels like the most ludicrous thing to do at the most  ludicrous time ever, and I’m not just saying that because the only think scarier than nearly 400,000 people showing up in Chicago for a concert in the hottest month of the year during a plague is nearly 400,000 people showing up in Chicago for a concert featuring Limp Bizkit in the hottest month of the year during a plague. But I’m not as young as I used to be, and standing outside under the blistering sun for hours watching bands play is not, as they say, my jam.

Twenty-five years ago, at my last Lollapalooza, I stood on the sun-parched grass of Walnut Creek Amphitheater having been chased out of the shade by tear-gas-wielding security guards following an unlikely Green Day-led takeover of the mostly empty covered seats. I listened to Nick Cave sing about darkness in the hottest part of the day—in a hazy, probably dehydrated stretch that would include Tribe Called Quest and the Breeders—and wondered if there were a more unpleasant way to see this many bands I liked.


I have a bunch of tickets to club shows this fall. I can’t decide if it’s stubbornly hopeful or just willfully naïve that I’m still talking about them like I’m going.

For now, though, I ordered an exercise bike and started looking at jigsaw puzzles.

Just in case.

Picture today is me trying to deflate an inflatable flamingo a couple weeks ago when things were still slightly less bleak.

Be safe. Please get vaccinated.

Plague Diary: July 20, 2021


Last night, I got distracted reading the news because it was terrible and instead started thinking about that weird period of time in the 90s when it seemed like Aerosmith was the biggest band in the world, but I had never met a single person of any age/musical taste who would have identified Aerosmith as their favorite band or even, like, Top Five favorite band. I’m sure they exist, obviously they exist in great numbers but just . . . never met one.

In honor of that silent majority, whoever/wherever they are, I put the first Aerosmith record on the turntable. I listened to “Dream On,” which is a song that I legitimately like, in part because it reminds me of a friend from New Hampshire, who loved power ballads maybe even more than she loved The Fall, but we spent hours in the very early 00s driving around listening to the two back to back, and sort of enjoying the bumpy transition between.

New Hampshire was/is also a karaoke fan, if not always particularly avid karaoke performer. I was/am a bit of a showboat, so I always found an excuse to sign up for a song or two. In those days, we mostly went to Bub O’Malley’s, on Rosemary, where we’d flit up and down the two flights of stairs from Hell (bar, not metaphor, on the basement level), like drunk Dantes, to hang out with our friends in the underworld for liquid courage before getting summoned backup to Disappointing Paradise to mangle Chicago’s “Hard for Me To Say I’m Sorry.”

Peter Cetera has quite the impressive vocal range. I do not.

It was weird for me to even try to something so bold. Back then, I was still in recovery from the nineties and its co-morbid crises of “selling out” and authenticity. I’d spent many years attempting to define myself by what kind of music I didn’t like. And though I’d begun to dip my toe in the pool of, if not what the kids called Poptimism, then at least the idea that I didn’t have to couch an affection for anything purely catchy as “guilty pleasure,” I was still pretty self-conscious about my karaoke choices. I didn’t want to appear undignified in front of a bunch of strangers, even though the whole point of karaoke is basically appearing undignified in a room full of strangers. So, I kept my repertoire to 3-4 songs, all of which I knew I could defend if they challenged on aesthetic/philosophical grounds (never happened, but my argument about how I rationalized singing classic Tammy Wynette songs as a “let’s burn down the patriarchy”-style feminist would have been a real barn burner).


Most of those karaoke nights have a bit of a wobble about the edges, probably because all of us were several states deep south of sober before we even staggered up to the bar, and also because that was fifteen, sixteen, years ago, in the complicated going-out shirt years of the second Bush administration. I hadn’t quite stepped over into thirty. My power ballad/ Fall loving friend hadn’t moved back to New England yet (and then moved back here again). We were all broke, directionless, single and shameless about buying cigarettes and single cans of $1.50 PBR with silver change fished out from between sofa cushions. No one had a child or a practical graduate degree or a career. I remember in those days having a friend and coworker ask me how my shift had been at the record store one night. Over the clamor of the jukebox, the murmur of the crowd, I swore I heard “We are all veterans of the sordid night.” And remember thinking “maudlin, but not without appeal.” And we all laughed at my mishearing, and they all laughed at pleasantries turned to pretentious pastiche, and we, we veterans or the sordid night, ordered another round and dialed up Royal Trux, or whatever, on the jukebox.

There’s a strong, OK Boomer-ish urge to remember these as the good times, because nostalgia renders youthful precarity romantic in the rearview. Nights of wild abandon fueled by the notion (however misguided) of having all the time in the world and nothing to lose make better fodder for poetry than, say, the travails of refinancing your suburban home or helping aging parents navigate retirement options. But honestly, though I miss those nights in some ways I don’t miss the silence of the yawning, sloppy, low-rise, Woo-ing void of a college town’s last call that served as a rebuke whenever I wondered what the fuck I should be doing with my life.* I don’t miss the classified ads. I don’t even miss the PBR.

I do miss Hell (bar not metaphor). And I miss the karaoke nights.

A couple summer’s back, in the not-exactly calm before the plague, I went one night to a Fleetwood Mac themed karaoke event and realized that Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” is a workout even without a lace shawl to whip around like a witchy matador. I had just enough fun doing it that I evidently took the stage a couple months later when I was out of town. I say evidently because I do not remember exactly. The wobble of the Bub’s nights having long since resolved into the uncomfortable, headachy Huh? that accompanies drinking too much (though far less than the old days) and staying up too late (though far earlier than the old days) as a middle aged person. I seem to have a video on my iPhone of me singing a Cranberries song I do not particularly like to my best friend at a bar in Brooklyn. I seem to have a text from her indicating that said video should never see the light of day. I seem to have a tinge of regret and a sense of my own mortality. I seem to have a mortgage and a regular paycheck. Not exactly the stuff of poetry, but I’ve already outlived several of my favorite poets, so I guess there’s that.

The downstairs powder room of my suburban house has pretty sick acoustics. I took my phone down last night, after “Dream On,” and called up the karaoke version on YouTube. I dimmed the lights, poured a glass of wine, turned away from the mirror and sang like I had nothing in the world better to do than appear undignified in a room full of strangers.

Picture is of last night’s record pile by the turntable.

As of this writing, 174, 815, 404 people have recovered from Covid-19. Please get vaccinated.

*I still don’t know, ps