+

Summertime Uniform, 2002-Present

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Seven. Day Six is here)

One night in late July, Art Night came home with the magazine rack. It was a huge metal contraption with two vertical shelves and a trough above constructed to fit the sort of hearty ceramic ashtrays one imagines that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton probably lobbed at each other nightly around 1968.

Art Night parked it on the porch with some fanfare and refused to tell us how much she paid for it. She was clearly very proud. For our parts, we were pretty excited too, as it combined two of our favorite things—smoking and print media—into a fantastic looking accessory that looked as if it could also be used to both spear and bludgeon the opposing side, should we have to make a run for the barricades.

“You’ve really outdone yourself,” I told her, with absolute sincerity. Even Cranberries agreed, and Cranberries was generally more critical of the kind of shit Art Night brought home—heavy plaster of Paris columns, a leopard-print bench, plastic furniture covered with super-glued army men, a quilted, ruffled red satin coverlet ala Poconos honeymoon suite, a, a mini-trampoline, a novelty “Bagel Barn,” an actual event tent. The magazine rack was useful, aspirational even. We stuffed it full of old New Yorkers and music magazine. Local weeklies. Classified sections still bearing the ballpoint glyphs of my futile job search. We smoked enough cigarettes to fill at least one of the ashtrays.

“You’ve got to go to this store where I bought it,” said Art Night. “That place is amazing.”

I told Art Night I didn’t have any money. I’d just tilted my debit card buying a PBR at the bar and bought a frozen burrito with quarters, which I was pretty sure should have humiliated me. I was twenty-six, after all. I lived slightly dilapidated, half-airconditioned ramble of a rental house with a rotating cast of roommates and adjacents. I could neither find a real job nor support myself with sporadic freelance jobs and record reviews for $10/per and free promos. From any reasonable perspective, my life was a mess.

Outside in the world, my peers were getting married, finishing law school, sliding into their first job with a 401(k) and a clear path to management. In that house, though, we were all broke and marginally employed. We reveled in our collective purposeless and penury, even as we suspected each other of having it easier being thus less entitled to performative angst. All of us telegraphed a certain style of misery, a depressive, slackass fatalism, that in retrospect felt like the last gasp of a particularly Gen-X attitude (though at least one of my roommates was a millennial) that still looked askance at selling out and could, after a hit or a couple of beers, drum up a moral argument for its own lack of industry.

But the thing is: I loved it.

I’d walk through the house on the way on the way to the porch, through a collage of mismatched furniture, a tumbling disaster of bodies and cigarette ashes and spilled coffee grounds and records and empty wine bottles and beer cans. It looked like it housed undergrads (it did) or a comfortable squat for middle class-raised packrats (we were). All the apartments I’d lived in, even when I was myself an undergrad, always had a particular look to them, a certain organization of things and colors I felt obliged to curate, an image I’d felt necessary to project. The new house refused to cooperate; it could not be controlled, no matter how many paintings I hung or records I alphabetized.  I lost myself in its cavernous, needless hallways and weird closets. I submitted to its chaos. It felt a little like liberation. It definitely felt like a clean slate.

I’d been slowly crawling my way out a depression for years, but it was in that house that I remember waking up in the hot, hazy Piedmont sunshine a few days after I moved in, thinking, it’s possible I’m not sad anymore 

&&

The original plan was that I live with Art Night, who’d been living in Chapel Hill with Ringer. Ringer’s brother Apollo had been in a long-term, mostly long-distance relationship with Cranberries since they were in high school.[1] Cranberries and Apollo had been surfing the vicissitudes of young love and long distance, separated by most of the Eastern Seaboard. At the time we decided to live together, they were broken up. But the kind of broken up that meant Apollo left New England and also moved to Chapel Hill around the same time I did, into a house literally two doors down from ours.  He said he was there to start a band. Art Night and I knew he was there because of Cranberries.

I was still in Asheville the day  Cranberries and Art Night found the house. They both called, passing the phone back and forth, as they tried to describe the interior. I remember nodding along like I knew what they were talking about, though all I was able to parse was enormous kitchen, nice porch, seriously comic amount of linoleum. “It’s an extremely weird floor plan. And the house has a lot of wood paneling. It’s a little bit ugly, but also kind of awesome?” said Cranberries. “And the back half is huge, but it doesn’t have heat or air-conditioning. Price is right, though.”

I balanced the phone on my ear and tried to imagine it. I couldn’t. I could, however, see tendrils of ivy actually breaching the bedroom window of my current apartment and through the window, the side of the mountain where I’d lived during high school. I thought, if I don’t get out of here now, this place will suffocate me.

That night, I went out with Asheville friends. I told them I was moving. To New York? To San Francisco? To Seattle or Portland? To Austin? To Chicago? I know guy who knows a guy who knows Ira Glass. I told them I was moving to a college town across the state, barely fifty miles from the city where I’d completely lost the plot three years before, in with two younger roommates, at least one of whom was still an undergrad, into a semi-air-conditioned house with some kind of hilarious linoleum situation that I couldn’t explain.

“You’re absolutely going to regret that decision,” one of them, a recent Asheville transplant. “I mean, whatever cool Chapel Hill was wore off years ago. That place is totally over. You’re better off staying here. At least here is beautiful. At least here is healing. You know, here is the kind of place that speaks to people’s soul. Don’t you feel it?”

I thought, I don’t care where I go so long as I don’t have to live among credulous assholes talking about how my overrated hometown speaks to their soul.

 I said, “Technically, the house is in Carrboro.”

&&&

We moved in on a hot day at the beginning of a long, hot summer. A few weeks later, my friend the Divorcee followed me down from Asheville and took the unoccupied back bedroom beside mine. Art Night and Cranberries were dubious, but I vouched for her and she settled in for a few months to rebound from her first marriage with leather pants and musically-inclined gentleman callers. She was a little older than I was and knew people. She was the kind of girl who got invited to parties and always had people offering to buy her drinks. When I was with Divorcee, I never had to pay for my drinks either. It was a practical sort of hedonism and more fun than I felt comfortable admitting, which is why I encouraged my roommates to tolerate the strangers in the back of the house, and try not to freak if, say, some coked-up, half-dressed  touring mess of spiky hair and Black Flag tattoos wandered in at at 4am, helped himself to Art Night’s frozen pizza without asking and made long distance calls on the house phone.

Sometimes Divorcee would take a night off from her beaux and give us all haircuts, because she was eager and we mostly couldn’t afford them otherwise. We’d sit on the three-legged stool that typically held the coffeepot in the center of the kitchen and she’d experiment with bangs and bobs while we listened (and mostly complained) about the playlist at college radio station (What kind of sadist plays ten minutes of Frog noises, followed by Annette Funicello?). I always told Divorcee she could do whatever she wanted to my hair, because I felt safely removed from both my sad hometown self and the disaster of college and maybe if I cut my hair short enough it would clear out the cobwebs and dismiss the lingering shadows of the preceding eight years.  Or as Flat Tax said, when he came over one night to buzz his head over our kitchen trash can, “It’s funny how every haircut feels like a clean sheet of paper.”

I liked that. I wrote it into one, then two stories I knew I would never finish.

&&&

The thing about being overeducated and underemployed and twenty-six is that you have time. You have lots of time, time enough to invent projects to fill the spaces between words and cigarettes and the next song on the radio in the brutally hot stillness of an unventilated addition of a house in Chapel Hill in July. I did that. A lot. Gas was cheap, so I spent a lot of time driving around in air-conditioning . I went to the libraries—the university library, the public library. I went to all the used book shops and all the used record shops. I wandered through thrift stores. I sat on porches. I snuck into apartment complex pools. I read Tristram Shandy. I wrote a couple chapters about a fake cowboy, a dead bull and a peach orchard.

I finally cobbled together enough spare change to go to the store where Art Night bought the magazine holder. It was a pollen-colored cottage across the street from the Duke Surplus Store stocked with not-yet-completely overpriced vintage goods. I admired the furniture. Then I found the dress on a rack in the room with the clothes. It was black and orange with a square neck and a full skirt made of motel room polyester, but it was, as my mother would say, extremely flattering. It also cost $13, which was at least $5, maybe $10, out of my price range. I carried it around the store, debating whether it was worth it. Finally the proprietor said she’d give it to me for eleven. “Sold,” I said, and counted out bills. I was sure it would fall apart before the end of the summer.

&&&

In late July, I finally got a job working at the gift shop of a local historical museum where no one bought anything because no one ever came to the museum. The job paid 8$/hr and I worked barely 20 hours a week. I sat behind a glass display case working crosswords and reading Lawrence Durrell novels, sometimes knocking the dust around a glass case full of vintage Tarheel basketball jerseys with a pink feather duster.

I drove to work every morning past empty sorority houses, down streets so lush with summer green they might have been liquid, listening to mix CD half full of songs by local bands that sounded, to me, uncannily like my life in the place itself.

One night when Cranberries was at work. Apollo came by to see if I wanted dinner. I wore the new dress and we rode uptown to the punk rock pizza place on the empty college strip. He’d recently become enamored of Marxism, perhaps because he could not find a job, even with his endless charisma and Ivy League degree. We talked about dialectics and guitar pedals. He carped bout his life. “It used to be that I tried to look shabby. It was a thing I cultivated. Now I think maybe I am shabby.” He touched the frayed ends of his shirt cuff and stared forlornly at the table.

I thought I had been shabby for a while, years perhaps, and I found myself untroubled by the revelation. I wanted to say to Apollo, remember how you came down here to make art or something? That’s not a decision you make if  you’re worried about being shabby.    

“I thought this was going to fun, this part of my life,” he said. “ I mean, are you having fun?”

I stared at him. Yes. I wanted to say. Yes, I am having fun. I am having more fun than I’ve had in years. I sing in the morning, for Christ sake. I grin like an idiot. I dance to “In A Big Country” in the front  yard at one-am with all my roommates after an unholy amount of cheap wine. Doesn’t the happiness just waft off of me at this point?

 He looked so troubled, though, and I wasn’t sure I could explain, so I just shrugged.

&&&

That house felt sometimes like a terminal, a pass through. I’d always liked train stations, so I didn’t mind.

Even in that first summer. The Divorcee lasted ten weeks in the back bedroom. She left and mostly took the gentleman callers with her, through for a while they’d still show up at 4am and tap at my window, wondering if she were there. Do you have her number? Could I borrow $20? Will you give me a ride?

I wouldn’t.

Art Night moved into the room in the back and painted visceral red. She went through a religious art phase, then a communist art phrase, and somewhere in there completed a thesis on Romantic Poetry.  Houseguests came and went. Flat Tax and Cranberries acted more, then less, then more like the couple they were. I lost my job at the museum. I started working at the record store. A best friend from one of my old lives moved into the other bedroom for a spell while she tried to work out her own version of Next.

I  suspected it wouldn’t last–the lightness, the lazy chaos, the endless nights–and of course it didn’t, not exactly. People can only survive so long on off-brand macaroni and the kind of art projects you dream up when you never want them to be finished.  But you don’t always know when your foundations are being laid, especially in a place so stubbornly impermanent. You might live with the person who becomes your best friend. You  might create a family. You might realize the first, best version of yourself is the broke one with weird bangs, puttering around a screened in porch, while she sings to herself on an impossibly humid August morning.  You might even buy a dress for $11 that will still be your favorite summer dress seventeen years later.

[1] With a few exceptions, we’d all attended the same high school, though not at the same time. Explaining how we knew each other complicated enough (Cranberries was my childhood best friend’s ex-boyrfiend’s ex-best friend’s girlfriend, for example) to require a chart that I used to keep on a clipboard nailed to the kitchen wall.

+

Hot Pink, 1987-1990

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Six. Day Five is here)

 

My favorite movie as a kid was “The Wizard of Oz.” I don’t know when it became my favorite movie. I simply came into consciousness so strongly identifying with Dorothy Gale that I insisted on a wardrobe of blue gingham pinafores and settings at the dinner table for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man (and occasionally a few munchkins). I sat in my upstairs bedroom and looked high above the chimney tops and sang “Somewhere of the Rainbow,” as if I might summon a storm to carry me away. And when my mother told how the mountains mostly kept out things like hurricanes and tornados as if to soothe me, I would think, so basically you’re telling me I can never get to Oz? That’s bullshit. Except I didn’t say bullshit, because I was four.

I knew there  were better and easier ways to get to Oz. You could fly, for example. You could drive if necessary. Were I not confined to the barbaric wilderness of my hometown, I might even be able to take the train like a civilized person. Getting to Oz wasn’t as tricky as people imagined. It was getting Oz to let you stay there that was tough.

Indulgent adults would shake their heads at me, not sure whether they should gently correct tale or play along. “Where do you think Oz is?” they’d ask.

And I’d say, “New York City,” like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

***

My earliest memories date from the last call of the 1970s, an era in which New York was reportedly a dark, trash-strewn wasteland stalked by criminals and forsaken by all but its most steadfast defenders and stubborn resident lunatics. But my own private New York was some combination of Tin Pan Alley lyrics, the indifferent, half-feral luxury of “Eloise,” and the shabby, yet fundamentally good-natured world of “Sesame Street” and “The Wiz.” New York seemed like the kind of place where a girl could scandalize a fancy grandma at high tea, perform two matinees amid a sea of needle-shaped buildings with castles on top, take a turn under a disco ball or two, and then return home to a crowded, congenial tenement  next door to a giant, neurotic pigeon and a sentient trash-heap that liked to sing songs about imaginary friends. It sounded, in a word, heavenly.

My father had clients in New York; my parents often traveled there. I’d watch them leave with anguish. Take me with you. Don’t you know even my dreams are architectural? These vast cityscapes with spired skyscrapers and gargoyles, art deco arches and domes. My hometown was defined entirely by its relationship to Gilded Age New York, a scenic corner of Appalachia colonized by Robber Barons and built in their image by the same architects and artists that designed some of Manhattan’s greatest monuments to ego. Was it any wonder it felt as if I were already halfway there?

My friends all talked about DisneyWorld. I could not give a shit about DisneyWorld. I wanted to see Central Park at dusk. I wanted to walk down Broadway. I wanted to stand at Grand Central Station and watch the world on their way to their way. I wanted to Take the A Train. I wanted to linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty and let my little town blues melt away. Ideally forever.

My parents said, One day, I promise, when you’re old enough.

I knew I was born old enough. I went to fancy church with Dad on Easter Sunday and asked God to deliver me from my drab provincial existence send me to New York, ideally in technicolor. I repeated this when I visited friends’ churches and temples in the event that God didn’t actually listen to Episcopalians. I wished on stars. I talked to ancestors. I crawled into my closet in my childhood bedroom and scratched out in in the inch-wide plaster hollow between doorframe and wall, PLEASE LET MET GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK. PLEASE LET ME GO TO NEW YORK over and over again in red ink.

  ***

A few days after my eleventh birthday, my mother crept up to my door after she tucked my sister in and gave the series of winks an hand signals I knew to mean, your father and I have something to discuss with you downstairs that is too mature for your sister to handle, so try to get downstairs without waking her. My stomach sank. I tried to figure out which of my parents had been diagnosed cancer or filed for divorce or lost their job or was secretly on the run from the mob. It was possible an elderly relative had died. I hoped it wasn’t one that I liked.

 I shuffled down the stairs on the verge of tears and wound my way through the dim downstairs to the den at the back of the house, where my parents looked confusingly chipper. So probably not a brain tumor. I might have even asked who died, and they told me to sit. This is not bad news. They had a present for me, one they couldn’t give me at the party. And she pulled a plane ticket from the cushion behind her and put it in my hand.

Passenger: Alison Fields

Destination: New York, New York

 Reader: I cried.

***

Here’s what I remember from that first trip:

We skipped the Statue of Liberty and headed straight for the Algonquin, where I petted the lobby cat and drank a Shirley Temple while my parents had a scotch and fought about whether  Mom’s new dress was sublime(her) or ridiculous (him). I tea-ed at the Plaza. I got stuck in an elevator on the 13th floor even, which was terrifying in the moment, but made the getting out wholly exhilarating. I watched the ice skaters at Rockefeller center and took a carriage ride in the park. I went to Broadway, to a terrible musical and walked way in front of my parents who walked much too slow, and totally freaked out Mom, because I was skipping euphorically past the pimps and prostitutes and peep shows of Old Times Square, oblivious to what was going on around me because TIMES SQUARE. I went to the Met and communed with the mummies. I observed the ornate skyline alone Central Park West. Mom wore high heels. Dad refused to hail a cab. I ate escargot. I went to FAO Schwartz, even though I thought I was too old for toys. We rode downtown with a driver in mirrored glasses who took us past the Chelsea Hotel and tried to tell a story about  about a magical lobster in broken English.  I stood in the center of Grand Central Station, breathless, while something like half of the known world walked by on their way to their way. New York exceeded even my most elaborate New York dreams in its very New Yorkness. I don’t know that I have ever been so satisfied.

***

Mom’s favorite thing to visit in New York is  fancy department stores. On that first trip, we went to several of them. She bought me a dress at Bloomingdale’s. It was a hot pink, teal-flecked, drop-waisted jersey thing, sleeveless with a polo color, meant to be worn under a matching sweatshirt. The whole ensemble was hideous in a very particular, dark-heart-of-1987 way that, like mall bangs and multiple pairs of contrasting slouch socks, should never be revived.

I would tell you that I wore the dress until the dress wore out, but this is not true. Fashion, especially Juniors Department fashion, changes quickly and dramatically. So do adolescents. Twelve-year-old me wouldn’t have been caught dead in what eleven-year old me thought was awesome. And thirteen-year-old me? By then, she was on a whole other trip.  Still, I kept the dress until we moved. I imagined if I closed my eyes and sniffed hard enough I could still make out the trashy, expensive, polluted, overwhelming, opulent, grotesque, lonely, crowded, marvelous stink of Manhattan in the seams. And I would think, my future

***

So, I don’t live in New York.

I never have.

Childhood me would be so horrified, but she couldn’t have anticipated the false starts, the small failures, the ways life tends to curve in and around on itself and about half the time put you right back to where you thought you’d ever end up.

Sometimes I can’t decide if not going at twenty-five when everyone thought I should was the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done or the most practical.

I suspect I’m too old to go now.  Sometimes I flatter myself by thinking it’s still a practical thing or some righteous decision, like, it’s my moral duty to stay in the South and not be the Southerner they expect to be.  Sometimes I think it’s a romantic impediment, like I don’t want the City become ordinary and unexceptional, and perhaps if I lived there it would.  Most of the time I think I’m still a coward, because it’s comfortable here, and it wouldn’t be there, and I’m less poetic about failure than I used to be. And I’ve had enough unrequited love affairs to last two lifetimes.

New York is not the city it was when I was eleven, nor is it the city I imagined I’d live in throughout most of my young adult life.  It is, however, a place full of people and things I love and visit regularly enough that I pretend I’m not a tourist–sometimes even convincingly. I like to sit on the Brooklyn waterfront and stare at the towers across the East River, like I’m Dorothy seeing the Emerald City for the first time. And it never fails to lull me into reverie as assuredly as a field of magic poppies, even if it’s hot as hell or freezing cold and I’m surrounded by crowds and clamor, which is invariably the case. And I always think, this dumb, over-priced, over-hyped, messy, ugly, capricious, uncomfortable place that does not need or want me, that I am in no way rich enough to afford, this is probably my favorite place on earth.

Then, like Dorothy, I always seem to click my heels and come home.

And yet

Five days ago, drunk on overpriced cocktails, I sat in my best friend’s apartment in Brooklyn and she posed a hypothetical, if you had  plenty of money and you had to live in a place, and it was the only place you could live, where would it be?

I hemmed and hawed. I told her I wanted to think about it. I made arguments for all sorts of places on multiple continents. I knew better than to answer honestly, at least not with any desire. Who was I? Some rube?  But I didn’t really have to say anything. She knew me well enough to know that it is now, always, and ever New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+

Lilacs, 1996-?

(In honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Five. Day Four is here)

Just after midnight, Istood with my three best friends (and the charming Brooklynite dating one of them) at the edge of the ugly oval fountain, in the center square of my otherwise lovely hometown. It was a starry night, warm and mild. The streets were almost silent, though it was the first Saturday in June: high tourist season in a resort community But in middle of the 1990s, downtown was still so deserted on a weekend that our voices echoed against the building and filled the empty spaces with tinny boasts.

We’d all had too much to drink,  and teetered around in uncomfortable heels and slick-soled dress shoes. We talked too loud, trying to sound tougher and cooler than our tuxes and party dresses implied. I hoped we might appear sophisticated, like we’d been at a some where glamorous and dissolut  instead of at my Mom’s wedding.

All weddings are surreal. That’s doubly true if you’re a member of the wedding party. Parent weddings are next level, because you never really expect you’ll have to go to one while everyone is still alive.  Even though Mom and my new stepfather had been dating for years. Even though he was a wonderful person who adored her and said he loved me and my sister.  It was still  Mom’s wedding. And the man she married was Not Dad. And  wasn’t it weird that I was almost same age at that moment as Mom was when she married for the first time?

I figured this would be messy. I’d wanted to avert the possible, public humiliation of sobbing at the altar, not so much because I missed Dad, but because it signaled the end of the old fantasy of a messy, Bohemian nuclear family built on easels and old typewriters and stacks of New Yorkers and the dreamy looks my still young parents shared when they talked about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as if they were an aspirational couple-which is a big fucking red flag right there, buddy. And sure, I recognized that things back then were not-great and sometimes maybe a little dysfunctional  and the fantasy really was just a fantasy but it was my childhood we’re talking about here and it was a hell of a childhood, not like my other friends’,and  in so many of the best ways, and was that getting canceled out too? And what if this permanently changed my relationship with Mom  who was my best friend? What if she Stepford Wived into a totally different person once she moved across town? And what if my stepfather was not as cool as he seemed and didn’t actually like me at all he’d just been pretending  and what if he hurt Mom  or my sister and what if? what if? what if? How would I achieve a modicum of stability in this avalanche of a life turned upside down?

I’d invited the  three people who formed the core of my teenaged life, who’d felt as important as family, yet knew me outside of family in the ways that family could not They would take care of me. But things were weird with them now too.  Two of them—Ivy League and Indie Rock—were exes. One of them, Punk Roommate, maybe hated me at little, and for good reason.  All three were changing at nearly light speed, on an almost cellular level that would have been impossible for me to  emulate, even if  it were a thing I was sure I wanted I mean, aren’t we supposed to be authentic? Don’t we mock posers? Why is it suddenly okay to act like someone else entirely?

I wasn’t completely immune to the lure of transformation. I loved Ovid. But I suspected, have always suspected, that on some unshakeable level,  you are who you are and that is, in part, where you’re from in all it scenic byways and grotesque deviations. Life may allow you to add to the picture, maybe even elaborately enough to obscure it, but you can’t subtract.

That’s so old-fashioned, Ivy League had told me earlier that day, as Brooklyn strummed Big Star songs on his guitar between us, when I tried to explain, because I was struggling with the casual way she’d started to edit and refashion our shared  past. You’re such a misplaced modernist, she said. Don’t you know that “real” is just another construct and that there’s no such thing as authenticity?

 I did. I’d spent four semesters hounding Ivy League for copies of her Ivy League syllabi for fear that I might miss reading something. And I could have waded into that debate to remind Ivy League that my closest friendships disintegrating in real time for what seemed to be the most bullshit of bullshit reasons was not a question for post-modern theory.  But it was already two o’clock. I was expected back at the hotel to dress in the bridal suite with Mom and my sister. I left my friends on the veranda at Ivy League’s mother’s house, the breeze off the lake rattling the rhododendron leaves in near-rhythm with the guitar. I worried that, without me as buffer, the three of them would sever their remaining ties and vamoose before the wedding. Did they ever really like each other?  I wondered, driving downtown. Did they ever really like me?

By midnight, alcohol had obscured whatever grievances. Spirits were high. I horrified  everyone by shuffling off through a chorus of Ew to a pee in one of a battalion of Porta-Johns at the edge of the square. At least one of the others had her feet in the fountain. I don’t know why you’re judging me. I can absolutely guarantee that there is human feces in that fountain, I said, even though I couldn’t.

 As I opened the door, I thought, I really wore the wrong dress for this.

#

The dress was a floor-length, lavender chiffon number, flecked with rhinestones, made for me by the same seamstresses at the same local fabric shop, who had been making dresses for me since  Aunt Laura’s wedding in 1979. Mom let us pick our own bridesmaid dresses. I took them a picture of Uma Thurman’s Prada dress ripped out of magazine. I said, size 14,more rhinestones. I hadn’t worn lavender since the fifth grade. I thought it might make me feel light and dreamy, that it might counteract the lumpiness, the waxy, unintentionally Goth pallor of a girl that barely saw daylight, whose current hair color was somewhere between Johnny Rotten and gaping wound.

Various people tried to sort me out pre-wedding, torturing my hair into bouncy curls and  slathering on several applications of make-up thick as mortar because I fell into several poorly-timed crying jags. The tectonic shifts in my family and social lives had laid bare all of my personal fault lines. And as Mom liked to say, all of your dragons were up.

My dragons were legion. I was broke and unemployed. I was lonely and depressed. I had basically not gone to class[1] in almost two semesters. I’d received a letter informing me of my Academic Suspension, which was administrative for you’ve failed out of school, but we’re not a discriminating enough to forbid you from coming back. I’d endured the judgement of a university higher-up, who’d opined, some people aren’t cut out for higher education. I worried that meant I was actually an idiot, which was embarrassing, given how much of my identity was constructed around being clever. I was terrified of having to move home, especially into the unknown of my mother’s new life. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I would do.

Nana came in to straighten me  because I was upsetting my mother, who just trying to get married for Heaven’s sake. She took me downstairs to the lobby bar for a stiff Vodka tonic and hissed at the terrified bartender when he asked for my ID. She told me she loved me  but I had to ixnay on the uncontrollable furious weeping.  I was being selfish and juvenile and that being a woman in the world means keeping yourself together so you can keep everyone else in line, even when they make you mad, even when they disappoint you, even when they break your heart. Because they will. And then things will be wonderful again. That’s life. I know you can be strong enough to put on a brave face and get through it.

It was a good speech, a bit reminiscent of the one Mom always recounted  having heard on her first wedding day. She’d had been dressing in the back of Nana’s house, suffering nervous jitters, when Dad’s grandmother, a real force of Nature, stalked past the rest of the family and informed Mom that Fields Women never cry. This was categorically, even hilariously, untrue[2], but it sounded tough as shit and evidently served much the same effect as Nana’s pep talk.

The wedding took place at my high school chapel, a small Art Deco riff on Gothic architecture that glowed pink in the afternoon light. It was weird being there. I’d never expected to miss high school once I left and saw it as embarrassingly sad that I did. Only losers did that. Only people that had squandered all their promise at seventeen.. In the chaplain’s office, while my new stepfather’s secretary adjusted my mother’s make-up and handed us our bouquets, I remembered I once stowed a choir folder behind the bookshelf after a performance. It was still there.

Mom had madrigals sung at her wedding. The group performing them included my high school drama teacher, my 10th grade English teacher, and my middle school piano teacher. They would be singing two pieces I’d sung with my high school choir. As they lined up in the vestibule, I chatted briefly with my drama teacher and my piano teacher. No, I hadn’t auditioned for any plays. No, I didn’t play the piano anymore. They looked sad. Saying it made me feel sad. I couldn’t remember why I’d stopped exactly They filed up to the choir loft. I wished I were going with them; I still knew every note.

A snapshot confirms I was at the ceremony. I look like a perfect brat of a teenager at the crossroads of boredom and rage. Mine was the face of a person trying not to appear uncool to her friends now visible in the back of the nave. Mine was the face of Fields Women never cry.

 #

 The reception had concluded by the time we wobbled back to the hotel. I sent my friends upstairs to the room we would all share and staggered back down the spiral stairs to the event space, where my beautiful, beaming mother was enjoying a nightcap with her new husband and her own longtime best friend as the band broke down. Someone handed me my gloves—long, over the elbow, torch-singer style. They’d been found between the cushions the corner booth table where I’d spent the night at a comfortable remove from the family. The fingers were sticky, almost black, and it took me a moment to remember I’d forgotten to remove them before availing myself of the chocolate strawberries on the buffet line.

Upstairs, I found my friends in the hotel room. They’d  acquired another bottle of champagne from God knows where.  There were two queen-sized beds. One would be occupied by Ivy League and Brooklyn; the other by me, Punk Roommate, and Indie Rock. We’re all drunk enough it won’t matter.

 I changed out of my dress, leaving it a dusky puddle on the tile, and hollered to inform the others that there was both a jacuzzi and a tv in the bathroom. I changed into a bathing suit in the shower stall. Ivy league filled the tub and turned on the jets. It wasn’t really big enough for everyone.  Because it was Saturday night in the mid-90s, we turned on “120 minutes” and passed the Champagne bottle around the steamy bathroom like germs weren’t even a real thing. Brooklyn discussed Afghan Whigs  with great ardor because they were in-studio. Punk Rock roommate made fun of him for it. They aired a video for a Girls Against Boys song and we had an earnest conversation about whether they had sold out. We smoked in the bathroom, even though it was a non-smoking room. For a minute, it felt like we were all in high school again

I was spinning when I crawled into bed. At twenty years old, I’d spent most of my college years a designated driver and could count on one hand the number of times I’d been truly drunk. Because I was the biggest person in my bed, I tried to take up as little space as possible, so I clung to the edge of the mattress, with one leg balanced against the wall. Beside me, Punk Roommate and Indie Rock settled. Across the room I heard hear Ivy League and Brooklyn kissing. Indie Rock tried to kiss Punk Roommate. She spurred his advance. He tried again. She threatened violence. The kissing noises increased in volume. Indie Rock kicked me by accident, and I felt hot and nauseated and claustrophobic. I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face like they did in movies. When I came back out, there was no room for me in the bed. I took the room key and went out into the hallway. I was afraid of knocking on anyone else’s door—my sister, my grandmother, certainly my mother– so I settled onto a love seat by the elevators, and felt as luxuriously sorry for myself, adrift, alone, with family and friends seemingly out of reach, as only utterly self-involved  twenty-year-old can. I slept fitfully until a hotel employee woke me around 5 to say that I couldn’t sleep there.

He followed me back to the room, to make sure I had a working key and a right to be there. I bolted to the door behind him and went back to sleep on the floor by the windows.

#

I said goodbye to my friends after breakfast. I saw them all again, but never all together. I drove back to our apartment with Punk Roommate.  She and I both would both enroll in summer classes to restore our standing. She would drop out and move  to Atlanta. I stayed on, and in the most oddball sort of way, found my way back to my way. Things got  better. Things got worse. And better and worse and wonderful all over again. That’s life.

When Mom moved into her new house, she threw out my childhood collection of paper dolls and my stack of “Sassy” back issues, but she  kept  the lavender dress. She even had it dry-cleaned to remove the chocolate, the grimy fountain, the Porta-Potty, the downtown streets, of the ash from cigarettes, and what felt like the end of everything but was actually the countless new beginnings to new stories that wouldn’t all belong to me and maybe never did.

Most of those stories will tell you that that night was amazing. That my mother looked like a princess. That my stepfather looked like the luckiest man in the world. That everyone had a wonderful time. And that my mother and my new stepfather were in in the kind of love that lasts decades, through thick and thin, and has.

Thankfully, most of those stories will remember me as a marginal character. A girl on the sidelines drinking champagne until her head hurt in a sparkly lavender dress.  Most of those stories will see me as a supporting character in a gorgeous chapter, a kid, the daughter of the bride, with own her life just barely begun, with her own story yet to be written.

And those stories, impossibly, marvelously,  . . . those stories were not wrong.

In fact, they’re usually the ones I remember.

 

____________________

[1] Save this ambiguously named 19th century Brit Lit class that surprisingly (and to my utter delight) ended up being a semester-long seminar on Oscar Wilde.

[2] A short list (verified) of things Fields women cry at: paintings, injustice, cathedrals, poems, stories good jokes, Aretha Franklin, disappointment good whiskey, frustration, sunsets, good food, soul music, r&b, gospel choirs, opera, Broadway musicals, television commercials, Renaissance motets, Judy Garland,ripe peaches, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Otis Redding, the Mediterranean, furry animals, nice sweaters, cheese,  mustard, heartbreak, bad movies, good movies, bad TV, Italy, excellent curry, Christmas presents, the moon, the stars, excellent wine, morning light, massages, the Chrysler Building, funerals, cocktail parties, bars, shows, restaurants, Central Park, Paris, San Francisco in the fog, pretty boats, the Alps, “Christmastime is Here”—Vince Guaraldi, Disney movies, fireworks, waterfalls, Bill Evans, Nina Simone, thinking about how much we love people, “Queer Eye.”

+

Big Peach, 1990-1996

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Four. Day Three is here)

In the old days at Belk department store in the Asheville Mall, they had an all-Evening and Wedding gown department. It was oval-shaped the department, blocked off from the rest of the store with artificial, faux marbled columns and draped curtains. In the center, there was a tufted velour pouf under a chandelier, and a glass table strewn with issues of Modern Bride. Further back an enormous three way mirror and one of those raised platforms so ladies could try on things with wide skirts and trains.

I didn’t care much for weddings (always the most boring conclusion of an otherwise interesting story), but as a lifelong devotee of sequins, crinolines, chiffon, taffeta and tulle, the Belk formalwear department was basically my version of heaven. I’d find every possible reason to end up there, usually slipping away from wherever my mother was to partake of its myriad delights. I’d look at every gown, running my hands all over the shiny material, then I’d look at the gowns in the magazines, and stand on the platform in front of the mirror, imagining myself wearing one of the sparkling sequined gowns, performing to a vast audience of adoring fans as if I were Diana Ross. The saleswomen were both understanding and highly circumspect. I’d always attempt to try on dresses. They’d always tell me no. Sulking, I’d wait until their backs were turned and slide in through the racks of dresses, just to feel the fabric against my cheeks, nap under the diaphanous hems,  and wait for older girls to come out and model on the platform.  It took getting busted about a dozen times before I finally stopped

You’d think when I finally had a real reason to shop there, to actually try on gowns, it would feel like a some sort of glittery apotheosis. And that might have been true had it been for an event other than the 8th Grade Formal and had I thought for even a moment I might be able to find a half-fashionable dress that would. I was a rather  fat thirteen-year-old. My complete failure to achieve anything close to puberty meant my curves were in all the wrong places. I told the saleswoman I was after something kind of like Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief.” She rolled her eyes and brought out the paltry selection of dresses that were appropriate for a flat-chested, size 14 fourteen year old and would, at my mother’s request, not break the bank. Pretty much all of them looked like something you’d wear to a mixer with your sister wives, but taffeta. The only differentiating factor was the location of the ubiquitous giant bow. When I tried on the one with the black velvet top and the peach taffeta skirt (giant bow located directly over the butt), my mother and the saleswoman cooed. It was very flattering, they told me. It makes you look very skinny, said my mother. And really cheats a bustline, said the saleswoman.  I gave a wistful glance to the feathers and sequins and realized truly and for all time that no one would ever mistake me for Diana Ross.

Disappointing.

 After she rung us up, the saleswoman handed me the garment bag and smiled at my mother. This is such a good dress, she said. I’ve basically sold out of these this week. Which was the exact moment I realized there would be at least five identical copies of the same dress at the 8th Grade Cotillion worn by at least five of my classmates that looked better in it than I did.

Life is fucking full of disappointments.

 

$

Just before the Christmas holidays of my seventh grade year, Mom told  I’d been invited to attend cotillion classes on Thursday evenings in the gym of my former elementary school. I expressed complete shock at this. For one thing, I was approaching the very nadir of my social life. It had been weeks since I’d been invited to anything. Also, it was 1988. I would probably never need to know the foxtrot unless I lost my soul or went into espionage work or both. I had a nagging suspicion that cotillion classes would be one more hour in a room full of people that hated me. But Mom, overtired from a sixty-hour work week, just kind of shrugged and was like, I think there’s a dance at the end of it. You’ll be sad if you don’t go to the dance. And the next thing I knew, I was being dropped off in front of my Elementary School.

My fellow students were a motley bunch. I don’t know how the list of participants was divined or which precise cadre or parents and/or dance enthusiasts  figured out the invite list. I can tell you that we were, with very few exceptions, middle to upper middle class white people stymied at the most awkward point of hugely awkward adolescence. The girls, by and large, looked approximately twenty-five and were maybe evil. The boys were dirty, violent shitbags with bad haircuts, standing, on average, several inches shorter than their female peers.

Our instructor had an absurd Russian name (we were pretty sure she made it up) and an accent that ran a regular commuter line between Stage French and Queens. We called her Madame. She was a birdlike woman of indeterminate old age who styled her silver hair in a Marcel wave and wore desert-plate sized large tarnished brass pendants, which made her look way more like Flavor Flav, than she probably intended.  She kept time with a metal tipped cane and considered The Hustle both distastefully modern and yet absolutely necessary. Sometimes she waxed nostalgic about dancing at the Rainbow Room. Sometimes she alluded to having been married to an actual aristocrat. Her cultural signifiers were stubbornly and hilariously dated.

At the beginning of each class, we were divided into two groups—Gentlemen on the left. Ladies on the right–and forced to draw names from a shabby top hat, thereby preventing anyone from being a wallflower (willingly or not) and keeping the passionately encoupled Music Biz and Preacher’s Daughter from rounding third base mid-mambo. Though three years away from arriving at my full adult height, I was reasonably tall by seventh grade standards, which virtually guaranteed that I would always draw some surly, sticky-fingered partner who called me lard-ass in the hallway but stood roughly eye-level with my non-existent tits, while Madame implored me to follow his lead. But how am I supposed to follow when he obviously doesn’t know where the hell he’s going? And she would thump her cane and tell us to Ladies, imagine you’re a princess and  he looks like Liberace! And she’d do a little shaky pirouette, lost in nostalgia for a time when all ballrooms had bubble machines and the she didn’t have to issue time-outs every time Mall Bangs tried to knee The Fist in the groin and told him to  Suck a dick, Fartface.

That Madame was so inclined toward reverie cancelled out the threat of the thumping cane. She might yell every now and then or threaten to call our parents if we didn’t stop disrupting the phonograph. But we all found ways to tune out the infinite replays of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in order to maintain constant vigilance against boys trying to snap your bra strap (an activity they found never less than hilarious). Several of the boys took Madame’s laissez-faire attitude toward bathroom breaks to slip out for a smoke in the bushes on the kindergarten playground. And it wasn’t long before their pioneering influence left the gym mostly empty of the male-identified for increasingly long periods of time. And while this was, in some ways, a reprieve, shitty boys being shitty was the only reason why the girls of Cotillion weren’t being shitty to each other. In real life, at school, outside that gym, we did not speak.  I might stand beside the Most Popular Girl on Thursday nights, commiserating over our bad partners, and gossiping in the bathroom about how Mall Bangs found condoms in some mother’s purse at The Fist’s Bar Mitzvah, I could be assured of her wrath if I dared  eye contact in pre-Algebra on Friday morning.

The last day of class came without ceremony. The promised dance, we were told, would be held the spring of the following year. An Eighth Grade Formal!  Madame looked overjoyed. The rest of us looked dubious. Who knew if we’d even survive until eighth grade, let alone want to dance about it.

$

Invitations to the 8th Grade Formal were distributed in much the same mysterious  fashion as those for cotillion class. Though still just a splinter of my 450-person-ish eighth grade class, the cabal had opted to invite a larger portion of the student body to the dance, which essentially meant the handful of our classmates that were tracked into Honors Classes who were not middle-upper middle class mostly white kids from the north side of town were added to the guest list. Also, there was a football player, which surprised me because I didn’t know they had a football team at the Junior High School.

I’m sure this counted as diversity.

Mom curled my hair and helped me with my make up. I wore control top hose and a girdle  under the dress, and high-heeled shoes, that I could not dance in.

I wondered on the way over if the other kids would be at a disadvantage, seeing as how they hadn’t suffered the instruction of Madame the previous spring. I mean, do they know a swing step? But when Mom dropped me off under the, I could already hear “Love Shack” playing inside and realized this was not that kind of party at all.

$

The 8th Grade Formal was held at the least restrictive country club in town in those days, which is to say, the one that didn’t limit access by means of race or religious preference. It was also, coincidentally, the one my parents (and most of the parents of my cotillion classmates) belonged to, during the not-yet-divorced, dual-income, pre-downsized salad days of my youth. I put this in the Assets column, because I knew plenty of places I could hide should Eighth Grade formal turn into the kind of unrestrained, Gates-of-Hell-thrown-open-bloodbath I suspected it would.

I ran into Ivy League at the coat check. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing there, because she was in seventh grade and technically not supposed to be there. But Ivy League was precocious in all things. I was thrilled to see her, because that meant I had at least one confirmed friend there. That changed everything.  She directed me to the bathroom, which was one of those vast Ladies Lounge set-ups, where there was, like, a whole living room with sofas and easy chairs adjacent to the stalls. It was full of girls, at least three of whom wearing my dress, including Mall Bangs, who’d been whisked off to Catholic School for reasons too weird to discuss[1]. Of course she wanted to discuss them, and held court for a while, as the rest of us hovered at the edges, applying lip gloss and AquaNet instead of facing the perils of the actual dance floor. All of us looked ridiculous anyway, save perhaps The Countess, who looked like a movie star, but we weren’t friends then, and wouldn’t be for an impossible two more years.

Eventually, Ivy League and I made it to the dance floor, which had been enlivened after everyone had bored of hiding from each other. We danced both the  Electric Slide and the New Electric Slide (twice). Both of them we learned in gym class. We also danced The Limbo, which we learned at the Roller Rink. We danced the Foxtrot zero times.

The DJ was an off-duty actual radio DJ, so he talked too much. About three-quarters of the way through, he announced a dance contest with a real prize, a cassette single of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” Ivy League and this kid Tito won. They were actually great. Neither of them liked Warrant. I’m pretty sure they ended up giving the cassingle away.

$

Mom came to get me at 10 because I called and told her I was bored. I was bored. It was a few years before I learned that dances were always boring, just an excuse to get dressed up, make the scene, and then travel on to the real party elsewhere.

As to the dress, it was a relic within months. The eighties ended authoritatively and with them went the puff sleeves, the drop waists, the yards of taffeta and giant bows. A couple years later, Mom would ask if I wanted to wear it to another event and I remember feeling a wave of disgust, a I wouldn’t be caught dead in that trash.

 It sold for a couple dollars at a yard sale, when my mother remarried and moved out of our house into their house, in Spring of 1996.

 

 

______________________________

[1] They weren’t.

+

The Holy Grail, 1995-?

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Three. Day Two is here

The Salvation Army store on Williamson Road, in Roanoke Virginia, was barely more than a shanty (one whole portion was walled in with corrugated plastic and the red dirt floor puddled when it rained )but it was a mecca for Dior-style party dresses. I imagined there must have been a whole mess of elderly ladies that downsized out of their historic homes into retirement homes or simply died with walk-closets full or New Look gowns.

The more extraordinary part was that one of those women was my size, an unheard-of development. Fancy vintage dresses were for lithe minxes with delicate waists, not flabby, ponderous elephants like nineteen-year-old me. But even among the debutantes of 1948, there must have been a few heavy bottomed geese no amount of genteel starvation and corsetry could transform into delicate swans. And one of them had donated what looked like her whole wardrobe in a single day.

I bought them all. Probably ten dresses total, perhaps as many as fifteen. It set me back about 25 bucks, which sounds like nothing, but it was a not-insignificant chunk of my Freshman Year allowance at the time.

“I thought we were here to find the Holy Grail,” asked Cardigan, when I dropped the stack on the counter.

“I did,” I said, and showed him a battered old brass vase, chalice shaped, with 25¢ scrawled on the bottom. I had found the Holy Grail, though, and it was a 1940-ish silk crepe dress the color of a blue-green sea on a cloudy morning, delicately beaded, that fell to the floor and fluttered gracefully around my ankles as if I were Ginger Rogers.

Texas sighed and held up her own dented goblet. “What about mine?”

“You definitely found something magical,” I said, but I wasn’t talking about her cup.

 

#

She met Cardigan on the internet.

In 1995, that still sounded pretty close to science-fiction.

Most of us had never seen the internet. We didn’t know how it worked. Women’s College offered ethernet to dorm rooms, but it cost extra, and you had to buy cables. It was a big enough deal that I had an actual computer (most of the girls on my hall had word processors, if anything) with a full-color monitor and an inkjet printer that I lied about being broken so the girls on the hall wouldn’t bankrupt me via ink cartridges. Most of the girls on my hall still had word processors. I had a campus email address, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I needed it. I honestly still think most people would prefer to just write a letter, I remember telling my high school best friend, with all the tragic confidence of the last buggy-whip manufacturer in Dearborn, Michigan. Why would I need internet?

My roommate had a fancy new Mac, with the cables connected, and after a time (of course) we all started using it to check our email, and then later, on the advice of some friend of a friend, we ended up in this early chat room called Foothills, which was basically a blinking cursor on a white screen and occasional perplexing mood statements like a brook babbles over the hill,  where we started spending hours after class, talking to legions of faceless people with too-clever-by-half user names.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know we talked about it for hours, each taking turns.

Cardigan was a regular on Foothills. His user name suggested he might be into the same flavor of punk rock as we were. And at the beginning, we talked to him almost exclusively about music, ‘zines and the finer points of MaximumRocknRoll columns. He was nice and funny. After classes, we’d hurry back to my roommate’s computer to see if he’d logged on. Texas worked in the library, so could chat with him during her shift. I’d sit at roommate’s desk or the computer lab and join the conversation.

At some point, the character of the conversation between Texas and Cardigan changed. She knew where he went to school. She knew his real name. She knew what his voice sounded like, because their conversations left the virtual realm and moved to the phone. I felt left out, he was both of our friends, but I could read the writing on the dorm room white board.

Back in January, in some escalating double-dog dare of an overcaffeinated conversation, Texas had sworn she’d shave her head if I wore my senior year prom dress to class. It didn’t seem exactly like a fair trade, I mean, it’s women’s college and when have I ever worried about being overdressed? But I think Texas was looking for an excuse that was neither as weighted with all the dumb gravitas people assign to dramatic haircuts nor as prosaic as I was bored. I don’t think the first draft of this conversation occurred online, but certainly the follow up did, which is how Cardigan got involved.

A plan coalesced. Cardigan would visit. Texas would shave her head. We’d all hang out. The two of them would hang out and see if they could make explicit the implicit flirtation in the spaces between keystrokes. I was skeptical. They’d never exchanged pictures.  He could be a serial killer. He could be a monster. He could be anything. What if you don’t like him? She didn’t seem worried. We’d meet him at the gas station that sold Elvis lamps off Interstate 81. If he was nice, he could follow us back to campus. If he was crazy? Well, I guess we could send him home and call the police?

 I needn’t have worried.

He turned out to be a cute nineteen-old-boy from a place I’d never heard of in Northeastern PA. He had the kind of shy smile that could melt a heart at ten paces, but his expression  when he set eyes on Texas in the parking lot on the interstate? It was luminescent. It was full-on wonder. Because she may have been charming onscreen, but, in person, Texas was real deal beautiful, the kind of beautiful that entranced people, the kind that regularly caused perfect strangers to stop on the street and ask if her she knew how much she looked like a particular supermodel of the era (she did, thanks, and that’s so nice of you to mention).

After hugs and introductions, after we bought some more cigarettes and gave him instructions on getting back to campus, I spent some time, hours, days, weeks afterward trying to figure how different that scene would have played if it had been me to get out of the car and not Texas.  If he would have felt the same, if he would have tried to hide his disappointment, if he would have found some excuse to creep off back to Pennsylvania—whoops! Turns out my grandma died, but you seem like a real sweet person and it was sure nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll run into each other again on the internet someday. I doubted he’d be mean to my face. Wasn’t his style. Cardigan wore cardigans for christsake, even if he did wear them over Clash shirts.

There was no need to think too hard on it, though because Cardigan was suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Texas. And Texas was my best friend. And there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about the fact that I suddenly, totally, completely smitten with Cardigan

#

In the interest of time, let’s spoil the ending:

This is not a story about a love triangle. At least not one in which I’m a player. I never told Cardigan I had a crush on him. He maybe sussed it out, but never acknowledged it. I wasn’t interested in betraying Texas and I couldn’t have competed with her even if I had. High school had taught me a lot of things, and among them, that the road to Hell is paved with the myriad tiny horrors and humiliations of trying to love someone who doesn’t love you back.

I didn’t try to break them up. In fact, I spent the rest of the semester cheerleading their relationship for the simple reason that I liked having Cardigan around and I thought if they broke up, I’d never see him again. I tried to graft all of my infatuation onto a local guy (another redhead) who I kinda liked (who also, as it turned out, was very, very much not interested) and would hold forth for hours talking about all my feelings that weren’t for him at all, but for a boy I couldn’t ever really talk about. Whatever pinch of resentment I felt drifted away over time, as did the guilt I felt for feeling it, as did Cardigan and Texas’s relationship, as did my crush on Cardigan, as did Cardigan himself, who would eventually become another faded entry in my Big Book of Unrequited Love.

For now, we return to the Salvation Army checkout line, to my stack of dresses, to our Let’s go to Thrift Stores and look for the Holy Grail scavenger hunt we were using to fill the afternoon hours before Texas got her iconic haircut (she had the bone structure for it) and Cardigan fell hard.

“What are you going to do with that?” asked Cardigan.

I held up the cup. “Well, if the whole immortal life thing doesn’t play out, it would probably make a decent ashtray” (It did).

“No,” said Cardigan. “The dress. What are you going to do with the dress?”

The saleswoman, with a Franklin County accent and church lady hair, paused in her calculations and gave us a scowl. She held up the blue green dress and the sunlight caught in the glass beads.

I would marvel that it fit me, that held up, even as the beads loosened and silk faded to almost pink with sweat and I required additional underwear to make it look as flattering as it had when I was nineteen. I wore it to shows. I wore it to parties. I wore it plays. I hung it on the wall as decoration. I wore it to one ill-timed arts gala in the gut-churning middle of the 2000 election recount. I wore it for my birthday. I might have worn it for yours. It outlasted Cardigan and college and the vicissitudes of my friendship with Texas in its stormy patches. And yet it lives. I can’t bear to get rid of it. Even though it’s in terrible shape now and it smells funny and I haven’t worn it in years.

I mean, you don’t just throw away the Holy Grail. Come the fuck on.

“I’m going to wear it,” I said. “Obviously.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+

LBD, 2000-2014

(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Two. Day One is here)

What a fabulous dress for a dinner party. Mom gushed when I came out of the dressing room. It was both flattering and modest, black eyelet, which felt like a fascinating contradiction. I felt a little like Jackie O in it, and I had never felt like Jackie O in my natural born life. I hemmed and hawed. It was cheap but still out of my price range and the kind of dress that would look good with pearls. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the kind of girl who wore a dress that would look good in pearls. I went to hand it back to the saleswoman. Mom took it out of my hands and announced that she was buying it for me. It’s timeless and elegant. No argument.

Here’s the thing: most of the time, you don’t buy a funeral dress knowing that it will be your funeral dress.

GrandJay died a few months later.  He made it to not-quite-eighty, an impressive age for a man of extravagant appetites that unsurprisingly felled him. His actual death occurred on the Florida panhandle, in a town with a name—Defuniak Springs—that sounded like it came out of the Southern Novel in golf shirts that was my paternal grandfather personified.  His memorial, however, would occur, five-hundred-odd miles away in Bristol, Virginia, where he’d spent a large portion of his adult life.

Mom and I drove over the mountain from Asheville, despite the fact that she and Dad had been divorced for years and crossed the state line from Tennessee about a block from the Episcopal Church. Inside the crowd was already milling with refreshments in the fellowship hall. Dad was there with his new girlfriend. My grandfather’s larger-than-life siblings had all come up from points Deep South and leant the background noise a pervasive Delta drawl. Mom was not the only divorced person in attendance. My Aunt Molly’s ex-husband was there. I hung out with them and one of my favorite cousins until we were called into the church proper.

Like most funerals on my father’s side of the family, GrandJay’s wasn’t a particularly morbid affair. There was no coffin (he’d been cremated), so we were spared the last bewildering gazes at a waxy corpse in heavy make-up.  The lay reader who directed the service was my father’s high school best friend, a man about whom I’d heard many scandalous tales, and mostly what I remember was my father, smiling faintly, as he read GrandJay’s letters home from World War II aloud to the audience. My grandfather had always been both a marvelous writer and a legend in his own mind. The young man in those letters, the barrel chested young pilot with the rakish grin and the wild eyebrows, who consciously aped Fitzgerald and Hemingway, in his descriptions of Northern Africa, of Italy, of barely post-war France, who believed he was both a daring hero and a fledgling literary genius? That was my grandfather at his best. If there is a such thing as a tragic flaw it is that GrandJay never recovered from being that young man, and so, it seemed fitting it was that young man we commemorated.

I sat up front with my Dad, the oldest child of the oldest child of man (himself the oldest child) who had died. I didn’t see my grandmother, Betsy, a woman who had hardly shared the same room as my grandfather since their divorce a quarter-century previous, come in the back and hover behind the back row where my mother, my ex-uncle and the rest of the divorced had repaired.  My mother says Betsy slipped in just after the service began and exited, a wisp of black and tasteful gold, through the heavy red doors of the church, before the rest followed the priest out to inter GrandJay’s cremated remains in a PO Box-shaped cubby beside his second wife, my step-grandmother, in the church garden.

After the service, we retired to my aunt’s house for canapes and reminiscences, and the mood shifted solidly to cocktail party. I toured pictures strewn across tabletops and over the glossy black of a grand piano, of both handsome young and weathered old Grandfather, while my favorite of his siblings, Aunt Sis, sighed theatrically and made hilariously gruesome predictions about both the family (at large) and the City of New Orleans, where she’d spent most of her life. My cousin and I stole a bottle of wine and barely evaded a winking former congressman who tried to convince us of his (non-existent) resemblance to Sean Connery on our way off the back porch and onto the golf course. There, we sat in the foggy autumn rough, just shy of a pussy-willowed water hazard, to smoke cigarettes and share the bottle, until we’d exchanged the most bizarre and humiliating chapters of our lives since last year and I could hear my mother and my great aunt wondering where I’d got off to in the way that meant, best get back before we come after you.

 The dry cleaner was able to get the grass stains off the skirt.

Years passed.I’d pass the dress by and pause when thinking about a dress for an interview, or a cocktail party, but once a dress becomes a funeral dress, it stays a funeral dress.

My Step-Grandfather Jack was 91, also a former pilot and a native of the Deep South (he hailed from Baton Rouge), but otherwise had nothing in common with GrandJay. His funeral, in 2013, was a sweet, congenial affair at a Methodist church in my hometown populated by my stepfather’s extensive sweet, congenial family. I drove to town the day of, barely making the event. I’d had to stop on the way at a box park in Greensboro to buy a cheap pair of conservative black pumps, because I’d drunkenly left my only other pair beside a wedding dance floor in Tennessee the week before. The whole ride home I thought I ought that sounded like the chorus of a country song..

The dress was old by then. I worried I’d be out of style, which felt like the wrong thing to worry about at a funeral. Gather ye fashion trends while ye may, I guess. My mind wandered during the service. Due to deaths and remarriages, I’d had nine grandparents total over the course of my life, though not all at the same time. With my step-grandfather’s death, I was down to three, all grandmothers. I tugged at the waist of the dress—it was fitted, still flattering, but not comfortable, and ominously wondered if  I’d still fit into it next time I needed it.

Less than a year later, Betsy, that elegant wisp of a grandmother in black and gold, passed away in a retirement home in Tennessee. She was a few weeks shy of ninety-one.

I rode back over the mountain from Asheville with Dad, this time to a cemetery on the Tennessee side of the Bristol, a couple of miles from where her ex-husbands had occurred the year before. There would only be a graveside service, so we killed time driving past historical landmarks from Betsy’s past. The house that had belonged to her grandmother and grandfather. The house just up the same hill, where she’d grown up, on what was once a rolling expanse of acres, since crowded by tract mansions. The cemetery was just across a divided highway from that house. We met the rest of my aunts and cousins there. They’d all been together. We had not. I couldn’t figure out if that was by Dad’s choice or theirs. My ex-uncle had once again come along. I gave him a hug and reconvened with my cousin, since removed to Silicon Valley, where she’d found considerable success. Otherwise, I felt strangely awkward for reasons I could not understand.

Perhaps because Betsy herself had herself been prickly. She was charming and beautiful, a consummate socialite. She was enormously funny, but often at someone’s expense.  I said this about her at the time: “My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor, unparalleled style and a kind of half-glamorous, half-cheeky nonchalance that served her well in all sorts of adventures (whether in Hong Kong or over a particularly heated round of gossip and bourre on the veranda). She was a loyal friend and an often-hilarious dinner guest. Being around Betsy always felt like getting the rare invite to one of the best parties around.” Put another way: being around Betsy didn’t always feel being around your grandmother. In all the good and bad that it entailed.

We convened under one of those green plastic graveside tents because the weather was pigeon gray and the rain needled. She was put to rest in an elaborate coffin, piled with white flowers, but her service was impersonal and performed by the Brylcreem-ed funeral director, while we politely sniffled and mostly avoided eye contact. After five minutes, the whole thing was over. For a woman so inclined toward grand to-dos, Betsy would have found her funeral a real non-event

She was to be buried in her family plot, picked by her own parents (Mam and Daddy Joe) years before after her brother Joe had died in World War II. They had been so undone by Joe’s death that they bought space visible from their own house on the opposite hill and commissioned a large marble angel from Italy to stand at his grave, so they could always look out and see his final resting place.  After each of their deaths, Daddy Joe and Mam (respectively) were laid to rest beside him, and it was probably about that time that the divided highway started to develop.  Shopping centers and gas stations and fast food joints filled the corridor between the two hills. The cemetery started showing its age. The White Angel became a target for vandals. First they cut off the wings, then the arms, then the head, until surviving members of the family (my grandmother, her brother’s son) removed the rest of the statue, leaving only a scuffed base showing the ghostly shadow of dismembered seraph feet.

I stood beside that base and watched men in jumpsuits being the rough, inelegant work of returning my grandmother to earth. There was no one left in the house across the way to look out at her grave. The cemetery was maybe a couple of miles from the Motor Speedway. Nascar and my grandmother—my entire Bristol family, really, and to be very clear, I was born in Bristol– seemed to exist in two different, completely closed universes. I tried to imagine what her gravesite would sound like on race day. Like the gates of Hell had come screaming open and unleashed the machines. I wondered who would visit her grave. I felt enormously sad.  The family all walked to their cars. My aunt gave me an ancient Ferragamo shoe box, these are for you from Betsy, she said. And they all went on about their ways.

Dad and I drove out of town. I sat in the passenger seat and opened the box. It contained four tumblers, two candlesticks, and what appeared to be four sterling silver, monogrammed sporks. I think I started laughing then. I think I laughed all the way to lunch, just the two of us, at a café in Jonesborough, across the street from the place I’d left my black shoes beside a dance floor the year before.

Dad complimented me on the dress.

I told him I’d decided never to wear it again. Three is enough, I said. It’s either officially cursed or officially free of its curse. But I’m not inclined to find out which. He clearly had no idea not what I was talking about but had the good sense not to ask for elaboration.

I wanted to throw it away, because I am the most superstitious variety of atheist, but it was still a nice dress, elegant, flattering, and in surprisingly good condition after fourteen years, so I donated it on the way out of my hometown.

Maybe you found it in the thrift store.

My sympathies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+

Plaid Romance, 1995-1997

In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. (Probably) Seven Bad Puns. 

It was a cotton-blend shirt dress, roughly forty years old, in a brown tartan print with a hint of antifreeze blue woven through the plaid. The bodice was unflatteringly long-waisted and missing two of the five covered buttons that otherwise gaped over my breasts. The skirt fanned out into uneven box pleats at the hips. Worn to shine in patches and reeking of mothballs, it looked like something that had been fished out of a garbage bin moments before it was enlisted as oil rag. I found it buried in the back of a vintage store, past the racks of delicate,  fairy princess party dresses made for delicate, tiny-waisted fairy princesses, and not fat nineteen-year-old punk rockers determined to take a level in ugly. When I asked the proprietor what he wanted for it, he gave me a shrug, I dunno. A dollar seem reasonable?

At the time, I was hanging out with the safety-pinned gas station jacket enthusiast set. Like me, they were mostly white kids with fucked-up hair. They were pretty sure the American experiment was over, that any day The People would swarm the streets to demand a radical restructuring of society.  There was a lot of talk about the coming revolution; all I was ever able to suss out was that it would definitely involve bicycles, a bunch of bands I liked, and probably a vegan cookout. Until then, the most important thing we could do was keep making flyers and not sell out to a major label.

I thought I might refashion myself as a radical leftist. I was (and still am) attracted to angry with people with a barbed sense of humor. The type of person inclined to go apoplectic when human beings treat other human beings like less than. I figured the far left was as good a place as any to make friends and find lovers. I read the books. I tried to sort out the factions, such as they were, in the college district of a New South city with a complicated racial history and a (still) deeply segregated population. I scrawled Emma Goldman quotations on my book bag in black marker. I tried to get into Crass.

I went to an anti-death penalty protest. I didn’t make any new friends. Most of my fellow protesters were vehemently Pro-Life in all contexts, a fact I only discovered after complaining loudly to the women around me about the terrible anti-abortion protesters that showed up every Saturday to picket the clinic across the street from my apartment. I was met with cold stares and the glint of candlelight reflected off crosses. Turns out the modern nun wears tailored cardigans and slacks and/or a nice pencil skirt. No veil. Who knew? Reader: I have never felt so Protestant.

I had already registered as a Democrat, but I signed up for the Communist Party when I found an ad in the back of a zine.  Are you now or have you ever been? Duh. Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman were one of my favorite celebrity couples. I sent a form and $5; they sent me a lapel pin and a list of regional meetings. The closest one took place in an afterhours classroom on campus. There, I found a room of four people quietly writing postcards to Zapatistas, while a forty-something dude leered at the girls and tried to lead the group in a Woody Guthrie sing-along. It didn’t really feel like my scene, so I cracked a joke about Stalin and skedaddled out of there as fast as my lug-soled Mary Janes would take me.

Punk Rock Roommate didn’t ask where I’d been.She was student of both the Russian Language and Revolution(in general) as a historical subject, but had little use for political pieties. I met her for dinner (free, vegetarian, hosted by the Hari Krishnas at the campus interfaith house). We sat on the porch swing while and discussed bankrupt ideologies, how you could never trust a man with both a bald head and a ponytail and how maybe the reason we didn’t hate the Clintons entirely was that they reminded me of our parents, who we couldn’t really bring ourselves to hate. One of the Krishna dudes interrupted us to say that the meals were only free so long as we gave a donation. Punk Rock roommate gave him about four word-perfect definitions of the word “free,” and then suggested he fuck off. And that’s how we got banned from free Krishna dinners.

We went to a noisy, smelly house show to see a bunch of noisy, smelly punk rock bands. Between sets, we sat on a derelict upholstered sofa that had been left to rot on the front porch through all four seasons of Piedmont humidity. We smoked cigarettes among skinny white boys arguing points of ideological purity seemingly indistinguishable from music taste.  An abandoned old school with shattered palladian windows loomed on a hill over us surrounded by long-rusted chain link. Periodically, I would imagine I saw shadows inside. I suspected they were benign.

I was mostly unhappy in those days—no one who wears that much brown by choice can possibly be emotionally stable–but I liked the house shows and the zines and that romantic end of the world feeling.

The dress exhausted itself in late 1997, I drove home from a Jesus Lizard show at Cat’s Cradle and the fabric disintegrated at the seams when I took the dress off. For a time, I had a few of the buttons saved in an old Band-Aid box, but eventually it too was lost to time.

 

+

Queen Bee

I was still wearing sweat pants under a dress coat when I got to The Countess’s house. I hadn’t changed since I got home from school and I’d run out of the door and down the street on converse high-tops, purple, inscribed with Smiths lyrics, boys’ initials, and that Oscar Wilde quote about the gutter and stars. January needled my lungs and numbed my fingers. I must have looked horrible, all greasy-haired and sniffling when I barged into her kitchen. She looked like a vision—all white and gold– a coronation Queen Elizabeth I in leggings and oversized sweaters and a Christmas-themed apron. She was slicing a pecan pie. Her specialty. I said, I’m having the worst day of my life. I wish I were dead. Which, because I was sixteen, was both gospel truth and complete hyperbole at the same time.

The Countess wiped her hands on a tea towel. She pulled three bottles from her father’s liquor cabinet, and poured a generous slug of each in three different Wedgwood teacups Vodka. Whiskey. Tequila. Drink each one, really fast. Then put this on. She held up a tube of lipstick, blood red.

 I was a novice drinker, then, and the tequila—would there be worm bits in it? smelled highly suspect, but I cowgirled up and  took the shots. While my eyes watered and esophagus burned, she gestured again with the lipstick. It’s critical. I applied the lipstick by my reflection in the kitchen window. I thought it accentuated the gap between my front teeth and made the rest look yellow. I felt warm and woozy.

Better? She asked.

My reflection blurred into something inoffensive. I nodded. I was.

The Countess hollered at her little sister. If Dad comes home, tell him I forgot something at school. She put on her father’s barn jacket. I felt in my pocket for cigarettes and we went out to the car.  

*

The Countess was not really a Countess. She looked a painting or a Renaissance princess and aspired, above all, to beautiful things and perfect hospitality. We spent hours driving around fancy neighborhoods, imagining which houses we might live in and how we might entertain once we did. A garden party, I think, she’d say. With champagne cocktails and portrait hats. The men would wear seersucker suits and mascara. She’d smile, pleased with her own cleverness. She liked transgression so discreet as to require a double-take, Was it? Could it?  It would be years before I knew she stole that line about the seersucker and mascara from someone else.

In general, subtlety was not The Countess’s strong suit. She had big moods. She made bold statements. She climbed the stage at morning convocation in her preppy flats and white dresses—she  only disaffected teenage girl in the 90s that preferred white clothes—and report on church signs we passed on our smoking circuit.  According the Woodfin Baptist Church, only the wide awake Christian can sleep with Jesus. What do you all make of that? Then, after a beat, she’d  stride grandly off the stage as if she’d dropped a mic in front of the Nobel Committee.

*

 She drove too fast, squealing into the bend, shooting out onto the Avenue, where the speed limit was an impossible 25 mph for everyone but The Countess, who thought nothing of passing a slower car as if it were rush hour on the expressway. We listed off bullet points about each of the mansions on the right.  That’s the house where Emily lived. That’s where Susan lost her virginity. That’s the so and so’s dad had  sex party. Hand to God.   The strange stone art deco villa in the ivy? Owned by a socialite tarot card reader. The Countess lit another cigarette with the lazy dash lighter and when she opened the window, she flooded the avenue with music. She liked spirally songs with ethereal female vocals. Cocteau Twins.  Lush. A bunch of other bands we’d later call shoegaze, or shoegaze-adjacent. She also had a weakness for Enya, which was hilarious. From my bedroom, I could hear her approach to Orinoco Flow played at death metal volume up the narrow corridor of ranch houses that led to my house. We’d moved there after my parents divorce divested us of the big house by the lake.  My mother and sister hated it there. I understood that the smaller, shabbier house under the mountain felt like a step down, but I liked where it was. I could walk to the grand hotel around the corner or  downtown and when I said the name of my neighborhood, people imagined I meant one of those Gatsbyish summer cottages clinging to the curves of  Sunset Mountain. The ones Thomas Wolfe wrote about.

I didn’t correct them.

*

The Countess lived at the bottom of the hill in a stone and shingle cottage, scarcely grander than my house. The summer previous, I’d run down the hill during a soon-abandoned flirtation with jogging. She flagged me down in her front yard. She’d had mono, she said. She’d been desperately bored, horribly lonely. Had I heard from anyone? Was I still hung up on Poetic Bangs? Had I really gotten a car? Would I like a dinner? Could we sit in the smoking section because God she was dying for a cigarette.

We fell immediately into that intense I can tell you anything for hours at a time thing that can make you go all “Anne of Green Gables”  bosom friends after twenty minutes and a shared plate of nachos at the Mexican greasy spoon. I let her smoke in my car. Then I started smoking in my car because I drove her to a school. We pooled the gas money our parents gave us and used it to buy cigarettes, coffee and doughnuts, but only when the HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW sign was alit at the Krispy Kreme.  When the Countess pointed out that I wasn’t actually inhaling the smoke, I did and became an actual smoker with a preference for black coffee, because The Countess had, like, zero time to wait for me to  add cream and sugar.  After I totaled my car, she would come for me after hours in her Dad’s jeep and  stand outside my bedroom, banging on the window with a downed tree branch, until I dressed and joined her. Sometimes we’d walk up the grand hotel lobby to do our Latin homework. I’d imagine the entry to Aeneas’ underworld looking like the big stone fireplaces on each end of the lobby. The Countess would coerce a lonely, aging tourists to buy her vodka tonics at the bar. She never got busted[1]

*

I’d known The Countess since we were babies, but she spent part of her childhood in parochial school. When we were reunited in the fourth grade, she was unusually tall and seemed in all ways about two decades older than the rest of us. I went to her house for a play date. She gave me a cool appraisal at the door and announced that she’d recently come into some blazers, shoulder pads, and silk blouses so we’d be playing Divorced Businesswomen. Pretend I’m Cybil Shepherd. You can be Kathleen Turner or Diane Keaton or something. She handed me a wine glass full of Fresca and started complaining about her imaginary ex-husband, Mark.

Our friendship didn’t take then, probably because I kept trying to get our Divorced Businesswomen to fight wizards and dragons outside the swanky Upper East Side Apartments the Countess imagined they’d live in. The Countess would give me a withering gaze and explain that there were no dragons on the Upper East Side. This was accurate. Dragons are definitely more of an Upper West Side thing. But I hadn’t even been to New York City yet, so how was I to know?

*

I didn’t really feel the alcohol until my second cigarette. By then we were most of the way across town and The Countess had just Evel Knieveled her way over a curb  onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. I told her I felt lightheaded and she asked if I was going to puke. I said no. She turned up the Slowdive, a gift from some dude  she was seeing. He was older.Sometimes she said he was twenty-one. Sometimes she said he was twenty-six. She was so over men our age.

She rolled down the windows once we outran the city lights. The black shadows of pines lorded over us on either side of the road. It was cold. She tapped the console. I brought a flask, she said. But the cold i good for your skin. Fresh air prevents wrinkles. I rested my head against the door frame and looked up to see if I could make out the moon.

*

The Countess found academic endeavor a largely dull affair, though she was not, strictly speaking, a bad student. Our school was full of smart kids and rich kids, and a few rich, smart kids. Neither the Countess nor I were rich enough to slack off entirely, so on the multitude of days we called in sick together[2].  I helped her with her papers and she helped me lie to my mother. Her dad was rarely home and seemingly oblivious to the Countess’ agenda when he was. As time progressed, her house became a one-stop for whoever happened to be out and looking for a place to hang out unscrutinized, often with a crowd.  A wander into her living room on a Saturday night usually meant you’d run into a motley assortment of Day Students and a bunch of  kids from the public high school I’d naively  believed I’d never see again. The latter were mostly boys, and all, at best, indifferent to me, unless I had money to throw in for beer or pot, like, even five bucks would help.

Those boys would send their girlfriends home and come over to have a cold one before curfew. None of them dated The Countess. She’d obtained the sort of capital R Reputation prim mothers caution their daughters against somewhere around seventh grade.  I never questioned the stories I heard and the assumptions people made about her because everything about the Countess hinted of sophistication. She was the kind of sixteen-year-old that could mix a perfect martini from memory and apply lipstick without looking in the mirror. It stood to reason she was also a libertine. We’d been friends for about three hours when she told me her actual greatest sin had been hitting puberty a few years before the rest of us, and being a pretty girl who  genuinely liked hanging out with boys.  Her romantic experience, in those days anyway, was scarcely more controversial than my own.

And yet those boys, the same one that had gossiped about her in the halls, showed up at her house and lounged with cases of cheap Fake ID beer, while she held court with elaborate desserts she made from scratch, while they still ogled her every time she stood and still talked the same old shit about her every time they left her house.

Why do you tolerate it?  I’d ask.

You don’t really understand about men, she’d say and she’d be right. I didn’t really understand about men. I didn’t understand about a lot of things.  My failure to grasp the convoluted social protocols the Countess rigorously adhered to—even at sixteen she sent thank you notes, even when the party ended with her swinging, half-dressed, from a front porch column, lip-synching Madonna and drinking convenience store champagne straight from the bottle—seemed in danger of upending our careful equilibrium

*

The best Parkway overlook was the one two up from the river, far enough away from the city below that there wasn’t much traffic, close enough that could skedaddle back to civilization if the Parkway turned out, as my mother suggested, to be a hotbed of psycho killers trolling for victims. I took us there first in my car. Then she took us in her car. And once the second overlook became a popular make-out destination, she’d shine the headlights of her new car through our friends’ fog-covered windows, park ranger style, to see who she could startle in flagrante delicto.

 *

It occurred to me, at some after-dance party, during senior year that every after-dance party was at The Countess’ house, which, by then, we’d started calling the Sodom and Gomorrah House. This was because of the lack of parents. This was because the Countess always had plenty of alcohol and an inclination to experiment with cocktails. Have you ever had a Gin Rickey? Let’s try daiquiris! This was because the Countess never went to the dances herself.

It’s not that she couldn’t have. I’m sure she was invited. She was beautiful. She was popular. She was funny. She was fearless. She was magnificent.

*

That night, we were the only ones up there.  The Countess turned off the car. We sat in silence, puffing out curlicues of smoke.

“We could talk about your bad day,” she said “If you want to.”

*

There are stories about The Countess that beggar belief. Some of them are true. Most are the stuff of legend soon lost on the infinite palimpsest of local rumor. Those stories are not mine to tell. And at some point, the Countess herself stopped telling her stories, or, at least, telling them to me.

I would come home from college and hear conflicting reports. She was married to a British lord. She was a nanny for a family in Ohio. She’d moved to Hollywood. She’d opened a boutique in Georgia. All seemed equally plausible.

What I want to tell you is that I’d had best friends before The Countess, but The Countess was the first real best friend I ever really had.

*

Every time a high school reunion comes up, and they do every five years at schools that rely on alumni donations, there are a few names I always look for on the RSVP list. I tell myself, I’ll go if they do, even though, especially though, I know they won’t.

I know she won’t.

I still dream about The Countess. I think it’s because we never actually got to be thirty-something businesswomen, bitching about our exes, battling the dragons, drinking actual white wine, being real grown-ups.

In my dream, she is always hosting a dinner party in one of those old mansions we used to drive by. I’m so happy to see her. When I come in she’s wearing a variation on this green velvet party dress she used to wear at all sorts of non-party dress events—to the grocery store, around the house, to the punk rock coffeehouse downtown. That dress made her hair look like shiny copper. That dress made her look like an empress.

I told her that once.

She said, this old thing? It’s basically a rag.

*

 I didn’t really need to talk about my bad day. So we didn’t. We just sat and smoked and  watched the stars, for long enough that my cheeks went numb with cold, until I worried about homework, until I worried about my mother worried about me, until I could tell The Countess was bored.

You’ll be okay, she said, finally, before she turned the key.

I believed her.

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] By contrast, I got busted repeatedly for trying to sneak upstairs in the hotel on a pilgrimage to the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to stay in the hotel, because at the point in my life, sixteen, early seventeen, I still believed in the totemic, transformative power of places. If I could touch this doorframe, that maybe he once touched, then maybe just maybe that would make me a better writer.

 

[2] “Did you know that you and [The Countess] have broken a school record for simultaneous absences? I just want you to keep that in mind given that you’re in the final stretch of your last semester“—Dean of Students, Senior Year.

+

Sound Salvation

In the beginning, the Radio Club had a radio station. It was a closet shaped room at the bottom of the stone stairs that opened like the mouth of hell under the old wrestling room and led to a concrete landing. To the left was a cinderblock storage room, home to long-abandoned student art and occasional band practice from the students most likely to get expelled. To the right was the day room, a brick cave that perennially smelled like old sweat, smoke damage and teenage boys. Some of the pubescent male funk may have seeped through the mats upstairs during the curiously intimate rites of violent masculinity performed each wrestling season. The rest came from the Day Boys, who in those days still outnumbered us Day Girls by a small margin, and some untold number of boarding students whose use of the right-side sofa and nook behind for hands-on sexual education encouraged advance knocking and  loud I’m coming in, now, perverts.

It was rare to see people coming and going from the radio station, which leant the Radio Club a little additional glamour. The general consensus seemed to be that they only really existed as a yearbook photo and vehicle to DJ school dances the administration was too cheap to outsource.  Sometimes, during a free period, we might hear a bassline, or the mumble of a voice through the wall. This was the only evidence we ever had that the Radio Club was doing anything like radio. The station had a frequency number, but whenever we tried to access it, we heard only static. It’s a very small broadcast area. Just campus. Fair, but no matter where we put up an antenna—in the dorm common rooms, in the classroom building, at the top of the stone stairs, in the hallway immediately outside the radio station door, we could never get a signal. Like, are we sure the station is even connected? Like, maybe the administration turned off the signal years ago, probably once they realized it was easier than dodging faculty and FCC complaints every time some fourth-form edgelord tried to dedicate “Fuck Tha Police” to the Headmaster live on-air. It would be pretty crooked to pull the plug on free expression without ever telling the people doing the expressing that you had.  But those were exactly the kind of  Machiavellian shenanigans we expected of grown-ups (in general) and school administrators (specifically), which probably accounts for why that theory picked up such traction. The Day Boys were particularly fond of it. I’d see them swaggering past the Radio Station door, shaking their heads with pity, like, Poor bastards don’t even know they are just playing records and talking to themselves about music. Nobody’s listening.  I remember thinking, that sounds pretty dreamy. Maybe I should join the Radio Club.

 II

I’d known most of the Day Boys years before I started at Boarding School, because they lived in my neighborhood. A few straggled in from the rural counties that, unlike my own, actually looked and behaved like Appalachia. A few came from the local Catholic School. Most came from the same public schools I had, places without day rooms, where no one in their right mind would dream of leaving their backpack unattended or locker unlocked. I knew exactly what flavor of fuck-up they were long before the Dean of Students stood on a small dais in the middle of the Day Room, her hand trembling with wrath, as she pointed to the still smoking, ash-blackened remains of the sex couch and asked which one of them had set it on fire. “Have the self-respect to turn yourself in now or tell me who did, because I promise I will find out.”

The Day Boys took her tirade with almost Zen-like tolerance, without a single incriminating smirk. She exited threatening vengeance for the incinerated furniture. We knew it was an empty promise. I don’t know which Day Boy burned the sofa. It might have been the one that drove me to school every morning and never spoke to me. It might have been the one with the curls that every girl in the spring play went moon-eyed over. It might have been the one that just shrugged when the Dean left and said, “I mean, it smelled like cum and was infested with ants. It’s not like anyone in their right mind was gonna sit on it.” It might have been the one I’d known since I was ten, when he observed me feeling left out at his sister’s birthday party and challenged me to the first of several games of Battleship on a rainy fall afternoon. It didn’t matter. The Day Boys had coalesced into a collective. In some sense, they had all burned the sofa.

III

The Day Girls had little time for the Day Boys. The school boasted a wide variety of young men with a wide variety of exotic haircuts, accents, favorite bands, and passport colors. There seemed little reason to hang out with, say, the guy that used to kick your seat while reciting long passages of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” in the back of your mom’s car on the way to sixth grade summer band, when there were, like, four other continents in the mix. I was into this boy with skinny arms and a curtain of bangs that I interpreted as somehow poetic. And by into, I mean, into. I mean, critical, irrational, embarrassing infatuation so intense that I’d shelved any reservations about him being a moralistic theatre kid who over-articulated every word and took everything very, very seriously, because he’d walked into the first day of a creative-writing extracurricular in Chuck Taylors and an old R.E.M shirt with guitar hands and a tattered volume of James Joyce shoved in his tattered jeans pocket, talking about words like other people talk about sex and said, as I fluttered and flushed and complimented his story, that you seem to have a hard time making eye contact with me which was weird kind of creepy but I was fifteen and when I looked at his eyes they were so blue and  Girl, let me just tell you.

When it hits like that—like a fucking anvil made of sparkles, butterflies, and pure hormones–you tend to forgive a lot, up to an including the fact that cool Work Tour t-shirt aside, Poetic Bangs had the musical taste of divorced Dad at a fern bar. So I listened Paul Simon and Dan Fogelberg, stayed late for Amnesty International, and sat transfixed as he sat on the theatre stairs strumming original acoustic ballads about deforestation and new age spiritualism, oblivious to the fact that there were at least four or five other girls hanging on his every stupid word, as infatuated as I.

Poetic Bangs wasn’t the boy I was supposed to like. I’d spent the year previous in public school cultivating a quiet, black ballpoint pen-doodled crush on this quiet, black-haired skateboarder that sat across from me in Civics class and writing stories in the margins of my notebook about decrepit big city dystopias full of quippy revolutionaries with punk rock haircuts. I didn’t think I’d be spending my sophomore year listening to Poetic Bangs’ favorite Billy Joel songs and trying to compose piano ballad that would express my undying devotion to him. The only thing more embarrassing than the intensity of my crush was the person I was becoming within said crush. I’d have these moments of clarity, fleeting though they were, and think, this? This is what I want?[1]

 Reader, it was.

 IV

Everybody was in the winter play that year, even a few of the Day Boys. I tried to do my homework in the green room and not hang desperately on Poetic Bangs’ every word. He liked to play improv games, which usually ended with him kissing a girl. Somehow that girl never ended up being me.  I mulled over it a lot. I bought more of his favorite records. I learned four chords on my mother’s old guitar and played them until my fingers blistered. I read the books he talked about. At that point, I still believed I could make a boy love me by imitation. I had yet to figure out that there was, perhaps, a crucial difference between wanting someone and wanting to be like someone. That realization came years and several unfortunate forays into hardcore and beat poetry away. At fifteen, though, I was too busy trying to cleave to his narrow tastes to stop and figure out my own.

We were in the green room sometime in January. Poetic Bangs had just slid onto the old orange sofa between me and another girl and just leaned over and kissed her hard, just to see what would happen. She blushed, clearly shocked, but didn’t slap him, which I innocently, jealously took to mean she’d liked it.

The Day Boys showed up in a clamor, and I was happy for the distraction, because it reminded me of all the noisy why not? days that preceded the dull myopia of unrequited love. They’d decided to test out the old stereo moldering away in the corner. They thought a few tunes might shake things up. None of us had the heart to mention that things were pretty well shook by the whole spontaneous kissing thing, and Poetic Bangs predictably told them they shouldn’t do it, that some of us—he pointed at me, I’m sure I glowed at his acknowledgement–were trying to study their lines and take practice seriously. The Day Boys had exactly zero time for Poetic Bangs and ignored him, experimenting with speaker wire and power cords,. Once the light came on, they shoved a cassette as Poetic Bangs sighed like a disappointed parent. You’re just going to get in trouble, said Poetic Bangs.

 The room filled with the opening chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’d heard the song; it was certainly the first time I registered it for what it was. It was catchy and crunchy, and I’d always had a weakness for minor chords played fast and loud. I looked over to check Poetic Bangs’ reaction, hoping he’d like it, so I could like it, but he scowled, this song makes fun of everything I care about. And the Day Boys just grinned, like, yeah, that’s what makes it so fucking great, and turned it up until my ears hurt and I could hear it in my teeth. They managed to get in about twenty seconds of joyously pogoing around the room before the Drama teacher screamed in and pulled the plug and threatened them all with detention.

V

In the high school movie version of events, I’d have walked away from Poetic Bangs because the Day Boys were more obviously more fun and definitely had better taste in music and one of them probably would have been played by John Cusack in a Clash t-shirt. I didn’t, because I was an idiot who didn’t know herself. Also, the Day Boys were jackasses. Not a Lloyd Dobler among them

At the school, all of the students were expected to give a small regular donation toward OxFam, to help the starving children. This was likely to instill some trace notion of social responsibility, which for the class of people typically associated with boarding school, would henceforth be framed as a tax-deductible charitable donation, ideally to the school’s own annual fund. But we weren’t all bound for philanthropist-level wealth, and the Day Boys took particular umbrage at being asked. They’d been on collection strike for several months when the Dean called another meeting in the Day Room to chide us for our collective failure to raise even a desultory fiver for the less fortunate. Every other dormitory, every other hall, every other group of students has a 100% participation rate, and you Day Students have barely donated anything. She brought Poetic Bangs with her, as a representative of the campus philanthropic community. He gave an earnest speech, reminding us of how fortunate we were, while children were starving. The Day Boys chuckled, self-satisfied, and saw Poetic Bangs make eye contact with the back of the Day Room door, upon which an installation of sorts had been erected, a collage of trash and speech bubbles parroting school demands for donations encircling the head a Baby Jesus-style illustration of a starving child like a halo. It was grotesque and offensive, like most of the things the Day Boys found hilarious, but in the split second he saw it, before he had the space to perform theatrical indignation, I watched Poetic Bangs suck on his cheeks to stifle a laugh. The dean, barely civil with inchoate rage, could not even fully process the back of the door. “I will find out who burned that sofa,” she said. “I will figure out who keeps stealing the clocks. And when I do, all of you will be sorry.”

Two days later, the last remaining sofa in the Day Room mysteriously caught fire.

VI

I found myself alone in the campus post office with the only girl I knew for sure was in the Radio Club. She was a senior from Washington, DC, which seemed very cool to me, and wore lipstick just barely far enough away from black to pass dress code. She sat on the table beside the mailboxes, legs dangling, thumbing through last month’s Spin. A blue-haired Kurt Cobain in a green shirt and sunglasses stared out at me from the cover. She saw me looking and asked if I liked them. I looked around to make sure Poetic Bangs wasn’t around and nodded. “You want it?” she asked. “I’ve already read this one.” I took it from her and said thanks, because I couldn’t quite find the words to ask her about the radio club and whether the station was real or hypothetically, how a person like me might join.

VII

The weekend before Valentine’s Day, the Radio Club hosted a dance in the Day Room. They moved the furniture away, slid the dais into the corner like a DJ booth, and played off a stereo on the old test proctor’s desk. The Day Boys stayed away. In fact there weren’t many Day Students there at all, because why return to school on a Saturday night? But I had come in a furry, fuchsia sweater, which I believed to be the prettiest thing I owned ,trying to find Poetic Bangs. I had some notion that night that something huge might happen. I interpreted it as he will realize he loves me. In actuality, it was I will slip and fall down the stairs, smashing my face up and getting a concussion in the process after realizing he doesn’t love me and never will.

Before all of that though, I stood at the edge of the crowd of dancers in the dark, sweaty day room, watching the flashes of colors in shirts and the dimmed dance lights at the DJ station reflect in the dark windows across the northern wall. I didn’t see any friends. I didn’t have a dance partner. But it wasn’t music that required one, and whatever Radio Club representative behind the table was playing “Temptation” by New Order, which had, in the days before Boarding School and Poetic Bangs, been one of my favorite songs precisely because it conjured some vague sense of the teenage life I thought I wanted to have. I wasn’t sure I was still allowed to like New Order, because it didn’t strum earnest chords on an acoustic guitar, nor did it snarl in fury and threaten to tear the room apart. Like most great pop songs, it bubbled up beneath me until I felt I rode weightless on crest of a wave that could carry me anywhere I wanted to go instead of careening toward inevitable disaster for long enough to dance badly in a dark room with mostly strangers singing Up, down, turn around Please don’t let me hit the ground as I half bounced breathlessly in place. Oh, you’ve got green eyes/Oh, you’ve got blue eyes/Oh, you’ve got grey eyes.

When the song ended, the  DJ put on one I would recognize the song week later, watching Teenage Fanclub play “SNL,” as “The Concept.” It would end up becoming one of my favorite songs for a while.[2] But at the time it was kind of a mood killer. The crowd cleared the dance floor, skulking off into the corner where the sex couch used to be. I remembered why I was there and turned to leave. I passed the girl from the Radio Club in the landing. The door to the station was open. I saw light, a table, some cords. She was balancing an orange milk crate full of CDS on her hip.

“Weird choice ,”she said of the song playing in the Day Room. “Don’t worry. I’m going to play something more dance-y. You should stick around.”

I think I told her I was going to get some fresh air. That sounded logical and she nodded. Even in February, it was swampy in the Day Room. I said I’d be back. I half-meant it. Poetic Bangs wasn’t big on school dances, but perhaps he’d consider it. Maybe somebody in the radio club had Thompson Twins or OMD or Peter Gabriel  or whatever song played in the movies when a crush had a happy ending.

I wish I’d stayed.

Coulda. Woulda.

Maybe Radio Club girl played Beastie Boys. Maybe she played The Cure

VIII

Sometime in the spring semester, the school drew up plans for a fancy new dining hall and student center to stand on the site of the old wrestling room, beside the arts building. They’d have to tear down the old building, including both the radio station and the Day Room. And thus, when we returned from Spring Break, not only was the Day Room inaccessible, it was gone.

Day Student lockers were moved to the first floor of the class room and over the next few semesters we were granted provisional use of various underutilized classrooms, and briefly the faculty lounge, before it was decided we didn’t need a Day Room at all. At each of these announcements, I swore I saw a flicker of triumph in the Dean’s eye. She’d bested the Day Boys, moving them inch-by-inch closer to her own office, until they had no place to hide. By the time I was a senior, we had no place at all save a classroom hall full of messy lockers

The Radio Club existed, in theory, through the end of the year. When the school hired a local band to play the prom and they blew the power on half of campus, with the first notes of their first song (a cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge”), members of the radio club were dispatched to try and salvage the situation. And we hundred odd teenagers in uncomfortable formalwear sat in the murmuring in the darkness until they were able to find enough batteries for a boom box. They gave it their best with Prince and De La Soul but the stereo sounded impossibly small and tinny under the gothic arches of the dining hall without an amp behind it.

I went to prom by myself that year in baby pink damask Jessica McClintock, which was maybe the last time I ever wore that color of pink. I sat with a couple of friends in the dark and tried to make out Poetic Bangs and his date across the room. We didn’t have much to say to each other. I still pined for him. I couldn’t help it. A few weeks, when he graduated, I wrote him a shitty, passive aggressive note. He responded by sending me a letter basically telling me that he hoped we never saw each other again. We did actually see each other again, but it was such a brief nothing of an encounter that I imagine it never happened.

I got over him.

I found new crushes, new heartbreaks, and whole vast universe of songs to soundtrack them all. I never did join the Radio Club though. When I came back Junior Year, it, like the Day Room, had disappeared, as if it had never existed at all.

 

_____________

[1] A couple of years later, I was so caught up in embarrassment over my crush, the way my crush played out, and the person I had a crush on, I could barely bring myself to talk about it. We turned in journals for English class, ostensibly to provide commentary on reading, but my teacher senior year was this salty, brilliant woman who was old enough to be my grandmother, but I loved her. I wrote about everything in my journal. She gave plenty of advice and book recommendations in the margins. When I finally wrote this long, incredibly tortured entry about the crush, its aftermath, and how humiliated the whole thing made me feel even years later, she responded simply, “Poetic Bangs could have been anyone’s Heathcliff. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

[2] Enough so that twenty-seven years later, I would stand in a crowded ballroom in a renovated mill, singing along as the band played it for a whole room of middle-aged people drunk on shared nostalgia almost as heady as a New Order song when you’re not quite sixteen.

+

Early Decision

I’m not now nor have I ever been a rich person. But I’ve spent enough of my life rich person adjacent to know that the whole College Admissions scam is only surprising in that someone actually got busted for it. The whole story is hilarious–almost hilarious enough that we forget about the still-acceptable legacies, the “here’s this new wing for the library” beneficiaries, or (more modestly) the kids (and I knew many of them) whose parents would shell out thousands and thousands to pay for expensive extracurriculars and high school internships, purchase plane tickets for international service work, or hire tutors to push almost-perfect SAT scores to perfect SAT scores, so already smart, rich kids can secure academic scholarships (for the prestige, not because they need the money). Sometimes this self-corrects (I knew plenty of legacies that failed out of competitive universities after a semester or two), but it usually doesn’t.

If you know me in real life, you may have detected a chip on my shoulder roughly the same size and shape of the absence of an elite college on my resume. I’m trying to get over it. Really I am. I can’t tell if the situation is made better or worse by the fact that I live in a college town, surrounded by smart people with degrees from the kind of schools that either wouldn’t let me in or give the financial aid necessary to attend. I like that they think I’m smart enough to hang, even though I lack their credentials. I still hate it when people ask me where I went to school when do people stop asking where I went to school?, because it’s a journey, and nine times out of ten, I have to deal with their reactions when I answer. These tend range from pity to Really? Sometimes, I swear I can see their reappraisals of my character or intelligence play out in real time across their faces.

My mother would tell me, and most certainly has, that all of this is just my own insecurity. “No one cares,” she says. “The only thing that matters is that you graduated.” But the market value of my BA is far, far less than it ended up costing everyone. I feel hugely guilty about that.  I’ve yet to have a job that, strictly speaking, required it. I made some dear friends along the way, but I didn’t make any critical connections in the professional or academic world that helped on the job market. If anything, my high school experience, as a financial aid kid at a moderately competitive boarding school, has been marginally more useful. And that’s grading on a real curve.

The school you go to is more than status symbol. It’s opportunities and connections. It’s access. It’s a pretty good way to size up who you’re actually competing against—whether they’re really smart and talented or really fucking rich and lucky or all of the above.  Plenty of smart people that went to great schools end up working the same shitty jobs at the same shitty wages as the rest of us. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance. It’s unlikely that I would have ended up hugely successful even if I had gone to Harvard (which was, to be absolutely 100% clear, never in the cards for me). I never wanted to be a world leader or a titan of industry. I wasn’t interested in making great scientific breakthroughs or inventing whole new ways to live. I always just wanted to be a writer and write for a living. Which I am (sort of)  and do (technically). Might I have sold a novel or gotten a job at the New Yorker had I come out the kind of tiny, weird liberal arts college in the Northeast I dreamt of at eighteen? Maybe. It’s equally possible, though, that I would have  just gotten way more into cocaine and performance art on my way to a job in the advertising industry virtually indistinguishable from the one I have now. I don’t know. Neither do you. And now my bra strap is totally showing and my accent is slipping and you can see exactly many shades I blush when I have to talk to you about college. Sorry about that. I’ll buy the next round and hope you don’t remember how petty I look when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

I made plenty of mistakes in school. I sweated so many nights away worried about not being good enough. That kid that got admitted instead of me? Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she never had to, because it never mattered if she was good enough, or even good at all.  The system was rigged from the start. The system has always been rigged. I knew it then, even then, especially then, as I applied for college among rich people, but I didn’t really know it, not until long after the acceptance letters were sent. So while I read about the admission scandal, I do laugh and gloat with the rest of you, but it’s with resignation, with fury, and something that feels almost like relief, but much, much uglier.

 

 

+

Passers-by

The first thing I saw out my bedroom window was the car—black with a long nose and curved where most cars were squared, so shiny it reflected the rosy summer dusk. I was eleven, not the kind of kid interested in cars, but that car was something else. I skittered down the stairs in my nightgown, through the cocktail party melee and haze of their cigarette smoke, out the front door, across the green lawn. The car was parked beside Mom’s fat white peonies. I stepped closer to inspect the tiny shiny silver woman perched on the hood, her wings spread as if she was about to take flight.

“She’s the spirit of ecstasy,” said an old man, in a tweed cap and a white silk scarf, with a silver tipped cane. He stepped around the car and smiled. “You can touch her if you like.”

I told him I loved his car. He said he did too. She was a 1961 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He opened opened the door to show me the interior. It smelled like leather and pipe tobacco and the wooden dashboard gleamed. The steering wheel was on the left side, which seemed wrong, but he assured me that was only a matter of perspective

He pointed at the RR stamped into the logo. “I’m also RR. And this nice lady standing behind you is my wife. She’s also an RR.”

I told him I was an AF and that the suspicious looking woman standing on the front porch was KF, my mother, and she’d probably force me to bed before even had a chance to get to know each other.

RR raised his eyebrow and twirled his cane like Fred Astaire. “Oh, well, we can probably do something about that.”

That’s how I got to stay up drinking Shirley Temples and talking to RR about typical fifth grade stuff—how I loved Benetton, European Royalty, 20th century American Architecture, and how I was planning to become the youngest editor-in-chief of The New York Times.

RR found this to be a perfectly reasonable. He might still know a few people at the Times. He definitely knew some folks at The Tribune and the Sun-Times, if I wanted to hone my skills in the Windy City. He’d been an Ad Man at Leo Burnett, part of the team that created the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “But honestly I’d rather be remembered as the man with the largest collection of books about Leonard DaVinci east of the Mississippi.”

Mom finally nudged me off to bed when she caught me nodding off just before midnight, but not before RR wrote down my address and told me to keep an eye on the mail.

**

The first things that came were a series of elaborate certificates and pronouncements  from dignitaries ranging mayor of Flat Rock (where RR had become perhaps the second most notorious Chicago transplant) to President Reagan (another RR), all formally naming RR (henceforth known as “Uncle Bob”) honorary uncle to me and my sister. I had my doubts that  Justice O’Connor or the Secretary General of the UN had actually taken the time to write me, but I’m pretty sure that letter from Tip O’Neill was for real.

Next came books. Leatherbound tomes about British Royal dynasties, coffee-table books about Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Strunk & White, “Tales from the Algonquin Round Table.”

I sent talky letters about how miserable I was being a child because I never got to go to decadent parties and how the girls were mean to me at the pool.  Then I sent him poems about cats and New York City, my two favorite things. He responded long, annotated critiques of my poetry with book recommendations, silly puns, and a wall-sized architectural map of Manhattan.

Sometime in the fall, he invited  out to the house for the first time. Uncle Bob took me out to the garage to visit the car, and while there took me on a guided tour of his department store shopping bag collection that he had strung from clotheslines like pennants. If he yanked on the string by the kitchen door he could make them dance. I was delighted. I told him I wanted to start my own shopping bag collection. He told me that was sensible hobby and let me pick half a dozen of his own to start. He followed me around his garage like a wine connoisseur, “Oh, that’s an Excellent Choice. Saks Fifth Avenue, Christmas 1963. A very good year!”

In between letters, he continued to have us out to his house every now and then, usually with other families. He liked to prod the children into antiquated games—he was particularly fond of the egg toss, for all its humiliating potential. He had a mercurial streak. Sometimes he wasn’t very nice. I went out once for a holiday party with my parents and he hardly spoke to me the whole time I was there, except to say that he’d decided he wanted at least half the books he’d given me back and hoped I hadn’t ruined them. Two weeks later, he wrote back and said he was kidding about the books.

I suspected my relationship with Uncle Bob had a timeline. I was getting older. His letters were shorter.  I had tumbled headfirst into ugly adolescence. People had stopped referring to me as either cute or precocious. And Uncle Bob himself was leaning hard into retirement. “I think he’s becoming more eccentric,” my mother said. That wasn’t comforting  “Eccentric” in the south is a big tent of a euphemism, including everything from “wears white after labor day to homicidal maniac.”

In the summer of my thirteenth year, I wrote from sailing camp about feeling horribly alone and scorned by my cooler, more sophisticated bunkmates, he sent a note back telling me that at least I wasn’t in the Bastille and a box containing a three volume history of the French Revolution and about twenty six packages of TWA roasted peanuts. I spent the next three weeks immersed in salty, waterlogged pages about the  Committee of Public Safety. It was not what I wanted, exactly, but perhaps what I needed. It’s hard to feel bad about being the only girl in your cabin without boobs when Danton is about to be executed.

When I got back home, Uncle Bob summoned us to this house for a picnic. He reserved most of a local park. He’d bought food and gifts and games for a whole bunch of honorary nieces and nephews. When it came time to leave, his wife loaded up the wicker baskets and coolers full of sodas and wine. He counted us off—five total and told the parents that the kids would ride in the Rolls Royce with him. We were thrilled. I’d spent countless hours exploring the car, but I’d never ridden in it. Bob slid in and directed all of the small children to the capacious back set. I was oldest, so I was got the passenger seat.

He told the parents to follow him and went zipping off down the road. Once on the highway,  he pulled over onto the shoulder and instructed me to slide the wheel. I balked. I’d never driven a car before–let alone a Rolls Royce. Uncle Bob reminded me that I’d been sailing camp and that cars were probably much easier to drive than boats. I couldn’t argue with him.

The steering wheel was more sensitive than I’d suspected, but generally, I thought I handled myself and the car pretty well. I only almost drove off the road or into oncoming traffic seventeen or eighteen times. Uncle Bob just grinned and laughed. My mother reports watching Bob’s car with mounting horror as it swerved left to right across the narrow, winding highway. She wondered aloud how many Bloody Marys Uncle Bob had consumed before getting behind the wheel and whether it was, in fact, irresponsible to let him convey the children to the park. I think it was my dad that finally pointed out that Bob was in the passenger seat—you know, right hand steering wheel—and that I, AF, was driving the car.

I was giddy when we arrived at the park. I hopped out of the car, feeling as if I could accomplish anything. The parents started unloading the food, the games and the gifts and just as we were about to sit down to eat, Bob announced that he and his wife would be leaving. He said he was tired and didn’t want to deal with any of us. He demanded the children give back their gifts.. Some of the little kids were crying. I was surprised, but you know, honey, Uncle Bob is getting increasingly eccentric.

My parents took us for cheeseburgers in Hendersonville and tried make us feel better about the ruined day. But I got in the car headed back to Asheville, sad about my lost friend. “Uncle Bob will be back,” said my mother. “You know how he is.” I did. That’s I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from him again. I got a card when I graduated from high school with an illustration of the lion from the Art Insitute of Chicago on the front. It was signed, simply, “Congratuations, RR.”

I figured I’d never see him again.

***

After I crashed and burned in my early 20s, Uncle Bob asked my mother to come in and lecture a group on Southern Women. He had volunteered to teach a class on “Life Below the Mason-Dixon” for his fellow relocated yankees at the local College for Seniors. He was older, close to ninety, and even more ornery.

I remember being deeply irritated that day, hurt that he’d asked me, because I never talked to him about the south, except for how much I didn’t like it I hated being referred to as a Southern Woman and all the fiddle-dee-dee-isms that entailed. I never wanted anything but out. And yet, at I was still in the south,  back living in Asheville. I hadn’t studied the Jacobins at the Sorbonne. I hadn’t become the youngest editor of The New York Times. I hadn’t ever even lived in New York.

After the lecture, I asked Bob about the car. He said he hadn’t taken her out in the while. I thanked him for being a friend all those years ago. I told him how I liked to tell people that  the first time I ever drove a car was the last time I’d ever drive a Rolls Royce.

I didn’t think he’d heard me and or that he hadn’t paid attention, so I gathered my coat and started to walk out the door.

“Last is an awfully final word, AF,” he said. “I’d suggest a more ambiguous ending.”

I don’t remember for sure whether he smiled. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even look back. But I’m going to tell you that he did.

 

 

 

+

In The Canyons

My first little sister got married in September of 2017. It was a a prolonged rosy gold twilight at a Lowcountry beach resort and a masterclass in production. Every piece of the event was at peak photogenic, but even without the scrapbook, the whole wedding weekend lingered in the collective memory like a slightly salty confection in Maxfield Parrish colors, something close enough to perfect that it would probably pass the blindfold taste test.

Second Little Sister spent First Little Sister’s wedding at a slump. Maybe it was that Second Little Sister was the only one of the three of us without a theater background and a well-documented crinoline fetish. Probably it was that weddings are the kinds of things people give a fuck about and Second Little Sister famously has few fucks to give. I don’t mean this to sound critical. Second Little Sister is not some snarling punk on a mission of destruction. She is in fact, so exceedingly chill that she once spent a whole Christmas Eve day napping in my mother’s flowerbed because the Elaborate Production of Holiday! occurring inside Mom’s house was harshing her mellow and hey, the sun was out.

And then Second Little Sister got engaged. She’d been with the same guy for nine years. They’d bought a house together. “We’re doing this for tax reasons,” they said, but it would be a wedding not just an elopement. The announcement came days after First Little Sister started posted wedding photos to social media. Sisters, I thought.

I was the oldest by a distance. I didn’t  grow up anticipating whatever befell the next sibling would soon come to me. I felt protective of both of them, even if I did prickle with occasional resentment in the rearview, like the proverbial codger carping about uphill, both ways, in the snow. When I was your age I was an unmarried renter making a few bucks above minimum wage at the record store and shaking coins out of thrift store couch cushions for beer and taco money. A wedding? Jeez. When I was your age I couldn’t even figure out how to get my wisdom teeth pulled.

DAY ONE

I am an unmarried renter, traveling to Utah with my mother, stepfather and my ninety-four year old step-grandmother, for Second Little Sister’s wedding. It is the end of October, cold and dark and 4:30am in my hometown, to which I have repaired, because beggars don’t get to choose their place or time of departure or means of conveyance.

The last time I flew into Nevada was to attend my one of my best friend’s weddings in Reno fifteen years ago. I spent the whole time trying to figure out if I shouldn’t catch a ride to California and stay. In those days, I still operated under a faint, if persistent notion that I must cross the continent and try to manifest some destiny for myself else risk becoming a cautionary tale. San Francisco had always seemed like the sort of place people like me ended up passing through on whatever instructive peregrinations were required of aspiring young American Bohemians. Even then, though, I suspected my internal compass was fixed stubbornly eastward. This made sense. I come from people that crossed the Atlantic several centuries ago and all stayed within a couple of hundred miles of a ship back to Europe, in case things get too weird here. The most enterprising among us, a great grandfather on my mother’s side, tried to break the mold twice. First by attempting to cross the country first on a bicycle in the last decade of the 19th century. He rode from Floyd, Virginia with his best friend, both on some one-generation-removed-from-a -penny-farthing contraption and made it all the way across the Mississippi  to St. Louis, before he was felled by pneumonia and had to be shipped home. Then again, a decade later, he and his young wife headed out to start a new life in Oregon. They built a home. They planted crops. The rainy green peaks ringing the Willamette Valley were just similar enough to home, I imagine my great-grandfather believing, he could almost, almost pretend they were, like his own immigrant ancestors had squinted at the Blue Ridge Plateau and conjured their native Baden-Wurtemberg. But the West is most disorienting at the moments it seems most familiar. Over time, the differences appeared more stark. My great-grandfather and his wife made it three years before, they packed up their household and their first child and came home to Floyd.

I never made for Gold Country. Maybe because I couldn’t figure out why anyone would willingly choose to be a pioneer. I found Westerns violent and ugly. I was continually disappointed that Laura Ingalls didn’t run off with a charming peddler or a bunch of carnies and end up some place with theatres, bookshops and bluestockings. Maybe, like my great-grandfather, I worried I wouldn’t be able to stomach it, that I would fail at a three-thousand mile remove and my ignominious return would be all the more obvious for it. Better to stay close to port of entry, in case things get too weird, in case I stop being able to pretend it’s familiar.

**

It’s brilliantly clear, warm, and dry in Las Vegas. I take in the baked landscape, the strip, the distant range of chocolate brown mountains. I get a nosebleed. It will last for the rest of the trip.

We cross into Arizona and wind through monster-faced cliffs. I hum “Peer Gynt” and wait for one of the mountains to sass back. I read a dumb historical romance when I was a kid in which one of the protagonists spent her days contemplating the craggy peaks of the Himalayas and imaging them impossible palaces. I grew up in a place where the mountains always looked like napping giants, covered in soft blankets of varying seasonal hues. For the first time, in the back seat, in Arizona, taking in the natural architecture, I understand how you might mistake a sunny crag for Shangri-la.

In Utah, my stepdad rented a house in a resort community across the highway from the state park where Second Little Sister will be married. The sun catches the side of the canyon at dusk and turns the canyon walls a nearly Ringwald-ian pink. I try to tell Mom how I associate that landscape with crime—tv shows about drug deals, movies about outlaws, books about massacres—but she’s caught up in the Georgia O’Keefe of it all.

DAY 2-3

It’s a staggeringly beautiful day, clear and bright. I go for a run down a bike path across the highway from the rental, in half-pursuit of a white bellied peregrine falcon, who soars over me and nearly sparkles when the sun hits her pewter colored wing. I discuss matters with the horses I pass. I take pictures of a large rock formation about halfway down the hill toward St. George. I see a lizard and wonder if he ever feels unfairly victimized ,given the town’s namesake.

Littlest Sister plans to tie the knot atop a petrified sand dune called The Big Galoot. We drive over to determine whether Stepgran can climb it and do a little sightseeing. I walk out over a web of ephemeral creekbeds, through rattling sage and ancient blackened lava beds and ignore the fact that my mother is hollering at me, as if I were a child. I feel like a child. I hang out on this giant rock, contemplating the indifferent sand, stone, and, if I’m reading park signage correctly, a wide variety of improbably fluffy bats. I stare at the opposite canyon wall and try to ignore the distant, tinny voice of my mother as she pleads with me to don’t go to far, don’t go somewhere dangerous. I think, I am forty-two years old. And this is my life. A wind knocks through the canyon, rattling the branches of leafless desert branches and small spikes of cactus. The desert says, Fat spinster. I say, Do Better. It says, Failure. Loser. Coward. I say, There you go. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I shimmy down the side of the rocks, past hikers and climbers actually dressed for it who take one look at me like, are you bouldering in shiny gold Vans and statement earrings? I give them the side-eye and ascend even further up the side of the giant red hill where my sister plans to marry. I try to make like I’m not panting by the time I clear the top and recline over the ridged surface.

I find Stepgran on the way down. She’s perched on a lower ledge, canyon wind ruffling her white hair. She tells me she sees faces in the rocks and she’s right this time because I see them too.

“They have to move the wedding site,” says my mother. “We’ll never get everyone to the top of this hill without a disaster.”

I reach down to knock some of the red dust off of my legs and find the rocks have shredded the back of my pants like run pantyhose from knees to upper thighs. Black jeans are not great for red rocks. No matter what Bono may have you believe.

**

In town, Stepgran goes for sensible shoes at a store in the outlet mall. I replace my ripped pants at a with a pair of heavy, uncomfortable Levis, which feels exactly like the sort of thing a put-upon city slicker would do.

We head back to the canyon for the rehearsal. The vast majority of the wedding party is either 27 and outdoorsy or 60+ and retired. Second Little Sister leads the rehearsal in board shorts and sports bra, yellow mud clinging to her legs and the top of her wooly socks. We file up the side of the hill, careful of nettle-like cacti and possible snake holes. Her fiancé tries to organize things. He’s a twin and a redhead, but temperamentally neither. I stare at his boots because they’re beautiful brown leather. I had a professor who advised me that you could tell a lot about a person by their shoes and that I would do well to keep that in mind when picking a mate. I thought, neither for first nor last time, Second Little Sister is no dummy.

I sit on the rock rehearsing Beach Boys songs accompanied by a soft-spoken black-haired guitarist and friend of the bride and groom from back east, who comes with a comprehensive repertoire of Irish drinking songs and the complexion to match. He shields his forehead against the sun and notes that he burns easily. I take a swig of illicit beer and head off another nosebleed at the pass, temporarily grateful that there is perhaps one other person here as constitutionally ill-equipped for the desert as I am.

The rehearsal dinner is held in the private dining room at resort clubhouse, a terraced joint on the edge of a unnaturally green golf course surrounded on all sides by Martian red desert. I stand out on the patio, watching the sun set over the canyon, drinking gin and trying not to feel weird about the fact that I’ve been seated with the grown-ups. I go to the bathroom and read articles on the internet.

Mom comes out to find me. We sit for a while in a ghoulishly arrayed, empty bar. The resort  staff has decorated the clubhouse for Halloween. A white chiffon wedding gown grimed with convincing dirt, blood stains and rubber intestines, hangs over us. “I’m tired of weddings,” I say.

Mom clearly thinks I’m worried about being single. I worry she’s going to give me a pep talk about finding a man. She doesn’t.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” she says. Maybe this is true, but I feel lapped by everyone several times over. I am a disaster. I am broke. I am lonely. I am old enough to have prom babies with PhDs and I’m still not saving any money and wearing thrift shop dresses. The notion that I am weird or arty or at work on some grand project is frankly belied by my actual output. I have accomplished nothing. I am nothing.

I think, I really am having a midlife crisis. I think, I really am having a midlife crisis in a desert. Could I be a bigger cliché? The desert whispers back, Come out under this red rock. And I’m like, why? so you can show me fear in a handful of dust? I know how that poem ends.

**

Our rental house has a back patio connected to a bunch of other back patios across a field of liver-covered gravel. We discover a roadrunner living out there. My mother loves him. She calls him Bob. She tries to lure him with promises of crumbs while I search the skies for the falcons.

Curtain call for wedding pictures is a couple of hours before the ceremony. Second Little Sister has gone with a Hawaiian theme, which allows bride and groom to get married in jeans and His and Hers Hawaiian shirts. I look precisely like a palm-printed beach cabana in size and shape, a no-necked, middle-aged monster with a bloody nose and cellulite thighs. I am the only fat person amid the lithe young bodies. I feel tender and bitter about it all at once. I can’t decide if they’re being haughty or I’m being awkward so I drift away and I take pictures. The Canyon walls. The Carolina blue sky. A little girl standing on a park picnic table performing to an invisible audience in a gold and black Batgirl tutu.

At wedding o’clock, I sit by the guitarist again. We sing Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older as what passes for the wedding party ascends over the rise. Second Little Sister’s stepfather performs the ceremony, a breezy secular thing. They recite their vows, things like, “be my partner in mischief.” Second Little Sister has her hair down. It’s long and shiny, like dark gold silk. Her husband is still wearing the good boots. I think, good for them they’re so good together. I think, if I got bitten by a rattlesnake, how long before I died? The desert groans, long enough for you to ruin your sister’s wedding like an asshole. I blink on my way out, hopeful that no one sees me give the finger to a pile of rocks.

The wedding party takes their time getting down to the reception site. I call my best friend in New York from a picnic table overlooking a rusted camper.

She seems surprised to hear from me. “Aren’t you, like, literally at the wedding?”

I tell her yes, “But it’s weird, I feel so weird, have I told you how weird all this makes me feel? I’m like the Lone Ranger here.” I start laughing because the setting sun makes the canyon looks like a matte painting Silver might heigh-ho off into.

The sun slips starts to slip behind the canyon before the young people reappear. We fix plates and give speeches. I sit with the bride and groom, the groom’s brothers, the bride’s other step-siblings. I read something I wrote on my iPhone in the back of the minivan. I tell second little sister that she’s a hero of mine because she seems capable of being wholly, unapologetically herself. I mean every word. Second Little Sister would never find herself alone, tipsy atop a picnic table at someone else’s wedding talking to the desert because she’s not sure she can be honest with anyone else.

The dance party starts. I talk to friends of the bride and groom about how I used to be a music writer at a publication they’ve heard of, and realize that was so long ago now that they were still in elementary school when I worked there. I have a couple more drinks. I dance badly. At some point, I feel a wave of drunkenness pass over me with such force that I find my mother and tell her I want to go home. She sees  I’m staggering and helps me to van. I stumble down the path. I drop my phone into the unrelieved darkness of the canyon. I drop my phone. When I lean to pick it up, I pitch forward and land face first on the gravel. I taste blood. No surprise. My nose has been bleeding since I landed. I believe I have knocked out a tooth. I think, at least with a missing front teeth, my grandmother will stop insisting I correct the gap between them.

I hear both worry and embarrassment in my mother’s voice, this “Get up, Alison. Get up”. I am a caricature of a drunk. “I didn’t drink that much,” I say. This is true, but irrelevant. Because I drank enough to act like a caricature of a drunk. Get up, Alison. Get up. I haul myself into the minivan. Blood runs down my face. I swear I can smell the shame wafting of my mother. I think that if my life were a movie, this would be the moment that I’d end up in rehab. Which hardly seems fair. I imagine a life measured by support groups and self-denial. Will I have to find Jesus? Will I have to start smoking again? And because I am still drunk, everything feels inevitable.

At the rental house, my stepfather’s sister comes downstairs. She clucks over me as Mom dabs at my busted face with a wet towel and an icepack. Stepfather’s sister is a conservative lady, a church-goer. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking because I’m too busy asking Mom if I’m more like Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” or James Mason in “A Star is Born.” Mom wisely does not answer but helps me up the stairs to bed. I fall asleep.

I wake up at 3am, sober-ish and headachy. I take some Advil before I look at my face. It’s swollen. There are scabs on my cheek and on my eye lid, a jagged, Harry Potter-ish cut on my forehead, mostly hidden by my bangs. My face looks a bit worse for the wear, but it could be worse. The last two times I wiped out trail running left a glossy crescent of an incipient black eye. I’ve had plenty of experience getting the side-eye from curious passersby, no doubt thinking I’d been victimized, because I’m a woman, and no one ever thinks the woman is into boxing or bar fights. I suppose this time would be no different, except that everyone will have saw me fall and seen me drunk and God, was I that drunk? I’ve never been that drunk. I didn’t even think I could get that drunk. I briefly consider running away. Can you run away at forty-two? Then I think perhaps I should kill myself. Then I think, what if by killing myself in Utah I get stuck in Utah for all eternity with all the other people stuck in Utah for all eternity. Eternity this far inland. With Mormons. What if everyone in the afterlife is an outdoorsy polygamist except me?

DAY FOUR

I’ve been awake for a while trying to suss out whether I should go downstairs when my mother knocks and comes in to see how I’m doing. “I’m fine. Embarrassed, but fine.” I mention that I do not know how what happened the night before happened. “I swear I didn’t drink that much.”

Mom nods.  She wonders if I noticed how heavily the bartender was pouring. I told her I felt like I’d been dosed. She assures me no one saw what happened. She promises that no one is trying to trundle me off to rehab. She tells me to get dressed for breakfast back in the canyon. I shower. I pat my battered face dry which manages to look both better and worse than it did at last appraisal. I apply stage-make-up level pancake to cover the carnage.

Wedding breakfast takes place in the same campground as the reception. Everyone looks tired but happy by light of day. Shockingly, no one saw me fall. I return to the rental house and the pool, which is completely empty but me and the imaginary 18th century nobleman whose memoirs I’m reading.

Second Little Sister and Good Boots come by to say farewell on their way off. She strips off her clothes by the side of the pool and jumps in while her husband stands fully dressed beside more. “I hope I haven’t been too much of a Bridezilla,” he says. I tell him he hasn’t  Second Little Sister takes her time on the way out of the pool. She changes in the restroom and emerges with a fist full of sopping underwear and a shrug. “I didn’t really think this one out,” she says. “Oh well.”

The drive off in a caravan of trucks full of friends, dogs and bicycles to embark on a group honeymoon through several national parks. They are followed by Stepgran and Stepfather’s sister, bound for Seattle. I wave, relieved that it’s over, relieved that I have no more sisters who can get married, or at least, get married for the first time. Next will be children: nieces and nephews. I take my book and sit in the hot tub. When I return the marked page, I’m gratified that the Reign of Terror has finally begun in earnest.

DAY FIVE

My stepfather drives us out northeast from St George, through a ramshackle town called Hurricane. We wind up a mountain and emerge on this broad barren plateau guarded by witches hat peaks topped with elaborate rock formations that look exactly like castles in the south of France. . Mom observes that it looks a little like Argentina, in the Andes. I haven’t been to Argentina. I think it looks a little like Mordor.

It’s a dreamy ride out, dreamy in all that it entails: beautiful and terrifying. We pass from canyon to canyon, through vast monoliths, high bridges over chasms, gray brown wastelands surrounded by cliffs, end of nowhere convenience stores and Navajo women selling jewelry off card tables on the side of the road under impossible rock formations . We drive deeper into the vastness of Northern Arizona, with cliffs menacing high plains like stony tidal waves.

The landscape is so astonishingly out of perspective with the tiny humans and their shabby motels and gas stations, I consider the pure, outrageous oddity of anyone imagining they could just have it. The desert feel haunted by gods and monsters, who are stingy with food and water and barely tolerant of human awe. It feels like the most insane sort of hubris to even imagine that humans, especially humans from far away, could bend it to their will. I get pretty mad about western expansion a couple days and a few centuries too late.Then I get pretty mad about not being mad about it all the time because it’s easy on the East Coast because there’s almost nothing left to remind you, idiot. I mulled over it and looked out the window at smug looking rock formation. Oh great, I thought, the desert’s back with incisive commentary.

Then we pull through the gate at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

**

2018 has been a brutal year for anyone with a soul, I think. My catalog of small calamities and trivial disappointments is just that, no matter how epic that catalog may feel sometimes. I’ve struggled to talk about the despair because I don’t feel particularly entitled to it. People with grief greater than I can imagine, they carry on everyday. They put on their shoes, if they have them, in the morning and look forward to the next hour, to the next week, to the next year. They endure.

I have a my warm home and full cupboards, a wholly decent day job, a family I love. And yet, I struggle under cover of sadness and regret so thick that I’m pretty sure I’ll never need one of those weighted blankets people keep going on about. I know I should want to endure. I don’t always know why.

I stand in a bathroom line in behind a group of chatty Malay women in brightly colored, ingeniously visored hijabs. One of them turns to me, points at her face, and asks, in broken English, if I fell off the canyon. I reach up and realize the minimal make-up I applied earlier has long since evaporated and the unremitting wind at the rim has forced back my bangs into a kind of Adam Ant al fresco situation. I try to tell the woman that I fell, but at a different canyon, bu then a stall opens, she darts off and the woman behind me clucks as if to say, that’s what all the battered women say.

It’s a relief to hear other languages. The Grand Canyon feels a bit like a theme park. After five hours of contemplating the loneliness of the expanse, I’m almost giddy to be in a crowd. I follow a bunch of Italian teenagers down to the Historic Watchtower, where Mom reminds my stepfather of her crippling fear of heights. She can look at the Canyon so long as she stays five or six feet from the edge and doesn’t look down.

I’m not afraid of heights. The Grand Canyon itself, however,  freaks me out—the vastness, the absence like a wound, that high raspy wind. It’s two days from Halloween and even with a Times Square’s worth of Bucket Listers mulling around me, I am 100% convinced that this is the creepiest place I’ve ever been.

Mom made us a dinner reservation at the El Tovar which looks like a cross between the Overlook Hotel and a ride at Disneyworld. The menagerie of stuffed and mounted animal heads on the walls of the lobby do not start singing when I walk through the door. I find this nearly surprising. We go for cocktails as the sky pinks with dusk. I walk out, though the wind is bitterly cold and I am dressed for a milder season. By twilight the cavities and crevices soften and the fading sun flickers against the stone like filigree. Fine, you’re pretty. The canyon preens in full-on disco colors: fuschia, purple, electric lavender. It’s like, Remember when you used to want to write serious, important things? You can do better than pretty, Fields. Turn a goddamn phrase. But don’t have any more words or time to get hazed by beautiful scenery, so I retreat to dinner.

My stepfather reserved the last room left in the park, thus I am staying in the same room as my mother and stepfather. The last time I shared a room with two parents at once was 1987, when Mom and Biological Dad took me to New York. Like everything else about the Grand Canyon, sharing a room with parents is also weird and slightly unsettling.

I’m bone tired and surprise myself by falling asleep at nine. Sometime later, I wake to a cold breeze and realize the hotel door is open. Weighted with sleep, half-dreaming, I cannot rise to close it. I hear feet padding on the floor, the panting breath of a dog, as something furry and black noses past the night stand. The bed rattles when the dog jumps up beside me onto the mattress. He settles near my feet, warm against my legs, and begins to lick his paws. He is friendly and soft, but not mine, possibly wild and the door is still open to whatever else might be skulking about in the moonlight. I call out to my parents in the other bed. I worry that if I’m too loud, I might freak out the dog, so I keep calling, until I hear mom saying, “Wake up, Alison. You’re dreaming. You’re dreaming.”

I move my legs around to search for the dog, to prove Mom wrong. The door is shut and the room is warm. There is nothing around my legs save Clorox scented sheets. I go back to sleep

DAY 6 & 7

After days of grand western vistas, we check into the Bellagio, which looks exactly like an outlet mall crossed with a mega-church and is thronged with the sort of people I assume enjoy cruise ships. I walk through a crowded atrium scented with perfume piped through the vents to conceal the everywhere scent of cigarette smoke, French Fries, old booze, cheap cologne, and the tears and sweat of thousands of miserable people desperate to project that they are having the Best. Time. Ever.

We’re up on a club floor because someone believes we’re high rollers.  We’re not. My room has his-and-hers bathrooms and a spray of still wrapped condoms, strewn like flower petals, on the floor beside the bed. I look out the window at Caesar’s Palace, which seems to wink at me, like, maybe you’ll get lucky.

I’m not a lucky person. That’s why I don’t gamble. Also I’m broke, partially because I’m unlucky and also because I don’t gamble. The week before Second Little Sister’s wedding, one of my best friends observed that I should take more risks. I told her I took risks all the time. I eat too much. I drink too much. I live outside my means. I run alone in the forest. I walk home alone late at night. I am attracted to argumentative men with complicated politics. I enjoy doing things people tell me I cannot or should not. But those aren’t the risks my friend means and I know it. “Sometimes”, she said. “I think you play it safe and don’t change all of things that purportedly make you unhappy because you’re actually pretty comfortable being unchallenged and mildly dissatisfied.” I kind of thought she was being an asshole. I also kind of thought she was right.

I pull on tight black pants and yellow high heels and tell myself I look sexy and dangerous. I think maybe, maybe, I’ll get lured into some sordid adventure off the strip and end up drunk with some washed-up scoundrel with pretty eyes and no future in some seedy room that smells like whiskey and Maybe I’ll get a tattoo I’ll regret in the morning. If only I weren’t with my parents. If only I were the sort of person that could be attracted to a washed up scoundrel with pretty eyes even if he didn’t want to talk about books. I mean, how do you even flirt with someone if you can’t make dirty jokes about writers?

We shuffle through the crowds and the mall to the series of escalators and sidewalks the convey us over the ersatz forum in front of Caesar’s Palace and then onward to the crowded strip. It is neither sexy nor dangerous. There are many pairs of cargo shorts, overpriced cheeseburger joints, and oversized frozen cocktails in penis shaped to go cups, compounding the notion that, for most Americans, the pinnacle of transgression is Spring Break freshman year of college. I stand on the sidewalk watching the volcano go off in front of the Mirage, thinking that I’d prefer a sin city with a guilty conscience and dirt under its nails and maybe I should have moved to New Orleans after all?

We drink at a cocktail bar, draped off from the slot machines by translucent netting. I feel queasy halfway through dinner and my yellow shoes have rubbed blisters all over my feet. I hobble back to the hotel, too tired for adventures or night cap. My feet are bleeding by the time I get back to the room and my busted up face is clearly visible through the make-up. I go to bed sulking and wake up crying and shuffle out, still sulking, demanding space.

Liberated for the first time in days, the only place I can think to go is the bird sanctuary at the center of the Flamingo. I wander past a lot of unshaven middle aged men with open collars and gray skin and emerge in this center courtyard with blue-dyed water, actual flamingos, mandarin ducks and a mini-golf waterfall. It’s reasonably peaceful, humid, and as much green as I’ve seen in a week. I sit on a bench by a black swan and try to cry, but I’m all dried up, just puffy and woozy. I pass a couple of showgirls dressed in black and red feathers. One of them looks a little older than me and has one of those immensely kind faces. She catches me looking at her and asks if I need any help. I think about saying yes.

I walk home through Caesar’s Palace because I have a weakness for classical kitsch. My eighth grade Latin teacher—an ex-nun and inveterate gambler—rewarded good classwork with Caesar’s Palace souvenirs and library passes. I conjugate verbs through the casino and goggle at the Lisa Frank perma-twilight of the interior forum. I’m saddened by the lack of actual Latin souvenirs (seriously, not one single Vini, Vidi, Viva Las Vegas).

My mother and I go to the spa. My massage therapist is an Israeli grandma who clucks at my face and tells me she moved to the States to help her daughter out of a violent relationship. I try to explain what really happened—I dropped a phone in the dark in Utah—but she’s having none of it. She throws in a cooling face mask as a freebie and spends most of the massage giving me the ins and outs of the singles scene in Jerusalem where she thinks I will find a good husband without a dangerous temper. I think my love life is difficult enough without having to Tinder in a conflict zone. I give her a larger than average tip. She gives me a hug.

It is Halloween. I packed a black dress with a red crinoline and attached a congressional subpoena to my bodice with a small, enamel Lenin pin. “I’m blacklisted,” I tell the parents. “Don’t worry. Almost no one will get it.” Every now and then, I get a knowing glance and a thumbs up. I like those moments of recognition, the one of us nods that we congenital weirdos never stop looking for, even after we grow up and learn how to pass as normal.

Mom makes us bar and dinner reservations on the terrace overlooking the Bellagio fountains. She and my stepfather look very happy. Adults around me squeal in delight, like children to giant streams of water choreographed to the “Titanic” theme. It’s ridiculous, I think, as the lights die down and the surface stills. And the desert is all,  so is pretty much everything you humans get excited about. I’m weirdly relieved. Did you come back to tell me something insulting? Are we going to do more of “The Wasteland.” The desert sighs warm dry breath over my cheek. Your existential crisis will still be there in the morning. Why don’t you just chill out and enjoy the show? I snort. The desert says, Twenty bucks says the next one of these makes you cry.

Mom and turns her chair as the artificial fog rolls out by the lake. I listen to the first notes of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” a sentimental, crowd-pleaser that does, in fact, always make me cry.

I face away at the rail, to obscure my busted-up, tear-stained face, as the strings swell.. I saw the Martha Graham dance company do this ballet when I was a kid. It was sublime. Better than this then? I roll my eyes.

Still, I think I’m going to miss the desert. Oh, I’’m not going anywhere. You should come back out and visit once you get your shit together. I worry I’ll never get my shit together. Isn’t that the whole thing? That I’m a disaster.  What is it you said? A failure. A loser. A coward.

 I’m a landscape, says the desert. You’re a rational human being. Who do think is doing the talking here?

I sniff.

You still might get your shit together.

I’m not holding my breath, but maybe.

I lean my head back against the chair rail, away from the water, to the hazy pinkish night sky. You know what’s a real light show? The stars tonight. They’re perfect. You can’t see them, of course. Light pollution. But trust me when I tell you they’re there and they’re gorgeous.

I smile. I know.

I endure.