Fake News

My last semester in college, I took a creative non-fiction workshop on Wednesday nights in a class of all women, taught by a woman scarcely older than I was at the time. There was some odd symmetry to it. I started college at a Women’s College. I finished in a classroom without men.

I had a hard time taking the class seriously. I joked a lot, which was at odds with my earnest classmates, all of whom younger than I and most afflicted with a taste for what was then called emo. They wrote stories about beautiful angular boyfriends that cried and how veganism made them beautiful angular girlfriends and the perfect beauty of a butterfly wing beating in tempo with an Ani DiFranco on a summer morning during an internship at an organic farm. I wrote stories about shoplifting bodice rippers from Lord’s Drug Store when I was nine (true) and how when I was twelve, I got fired from cat-sitting for the famous child psychiatrist next door by inviting all the boys in the neighborhood over to play with his extremely cool vintage collectible pinball machine (also true). I felt like a drunken elephant harrumphing around a china shop full of  exquisitely damaged porcelain figurines. This was not uncommon. Conventional femininity is a lot about being delicate and whenever I tried to perform it, I usually just ended up tripping over myself, tumbling down a grand staircase and destroying something priceless.

I had not, as they say on TV, come to make friends. I’d arrived at the conclusion of an endless, contentious and frequently abysmal college career. The writing class was literally my very last class. When I got around to submitting for the last workshop, I decided to write, in particular, about how college had been, about the lowest moment of my horrific undergraduate career.

At the time of the class, I vastly preferred writing fiction. I’d written a mostly awful gothic novel about homeless punk rock kids, family pressures, and Gilded Age ruins in eastern Pennsylvania. I’d won a literary award in college for a stream-of-consciousness short story I wrote about doing crystal meth at boarding school, which was hilariously cliché, and everyone believed was autobiographical. It wasn’t. I considered Creative Non-Fiction a euphemism for literate “truth” that blanched at first sight of a fact-checker and a cynical marketing ploy to sell mediocre autobiographical novels. I’d received plenty of criticism in the class thus far for my failure to delve deep into the endlessly gentle, endlessly suffering thing that a girl at my former college had tattooed on her arm after misunderstanding TS Eliot’s “Preludes” (or perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”). They wanted misery and they wanted it to be beautiful and sexy. They refused to believe that anything as banal and petty as I ran away from home because my dad wouldn’t pay for boarding school could possibly be true. Which was both deeply weird and weirdly flattering.

So, the story I turned in was about 70% fiction. It took place in my actual old apartment. It described a bar I did go to. It mentioned songs that existed in the world—songs I liked, even. And I had certainly felt the way I described myself in the story–empty, lonely, impossibly depressed, deploying a lot of gallows humor to create (ironic?) distance between myself and crushing despair. The plot line, however, followed an entirely invented evening of various self-destructive behaviors and a boozy, low-lit sexual encounter with a flatteringly scruffy amalgamation of several dudes I knew, all dialed up to a solid 11.5 on the Nan Goldin-style beautifully/seedy meter. It made a better story than the reality of chastely contemplating suicide over a Cook-Out Tray in the Piedmont Triad. And if I were truly  not vulnerable and tragic and real enough for my professor or classmates, I would happily serve them up a whole pile of horseshit in their preferred scent profile.

I had plenty of practice making things up. I’d spent much of my young life lying through  my teeth. Sometimes this would start with something simple. A polite white lie. A bit of gilt on the lily. The sort of fanciful exaggeration my family–a rogue’s gallery of writers, politicians, peddlers, socialites, and bullshit artists of the first degree–might call  a melon ball.  An offhand anecdote, spurred by an attempt to enliven a conversation. A false admission so I might better fit in or seem cool. You can make a lot of friends nodding along about a neglectful punk rock boyfriend in California ,even if you’ve never had a neglectful boyfriend in California, even if you’ve never had a boyfriend at all, even if you’ve never been to California, and 99.9% of the time, no one asks follow-up questions, because most people, especially young people, are mostly just waiting for their turn to talk about themselves. Sometimes the tales transformed with time into things that required complicated infrastructure and timelines and character sheets. They were cinematic, evocative with scenes so richly imagined I could describe the scent of the air, the way the ground felt under my feet.

Eventually, I grew out of the lies and tired of the care and maintenance they required. Sometime around the bottom of the abyss, on a night very much like the night I’d fictionalized for non-fiction class, I realized I’d reached the limits of invention. I no longer took any pleasure from the ersatz versions of my life and I couldn’t get any of the old razzle-dazzle to work on my actual lived circumstances. Human beings are, after all, annoyingly unreceptive to authorial intent. I could neither imagine my way out of unhappiness nor make art out of  the boring, irrational, endless days of sitting up until five am listening to the same five songs waiting for a different final verse.

I stopped lying when I was depressed  because  I had to stop telling people I was cool and fine if I were going to make it.The whole time I’d assumed, eventually, they’d call me on my shit. They didn’t. People have their own shit. They don’t want to work out your inconsistencies or analyze your word choices. They generally prefer a good tale to boring truth, as evidenced by the whole world over the past few years, as evidenced by my creative non-fiction class.

If I’d had the slightest concern at being called out for making up my assignment, I needn’t have. My fake evening having fake sex with fake guy were the only parts of the story that rang true to my classmates. They lauded me for the brutal truth of my descriptions of the sexual encounter, the heartbreaking honesty of my richly-imagined conversations, my precise recounting of the laundry list of self-destructive behaviors I never actually partook in. Very brave, my professor said, if only the parts where you describe your state of mind were so honest. And then she went on to describe the actual true parts as too remote, too dry, too full of ironic distance. This doesn’t feel like something written by a person who has been depressed. You write about pain like a vapid hipster.

I think I just rolled my eyes and said something pretty close to exactly oh well, whatever, nevermind. She gave me a B in the class, the lowest grade I’d ever received in a writing workshop. I didn’t care. I graduated.  I believed—and perhaps still do– the only way I could write really honestly about anything, was to do so through fiction.

Seventeen years after my non-fiction creative writing workshop, I find myself writing a lot more creative non-fiction than fiction. Not just stories, but statuses and posts and blogs and tweets. Social media wasn’t a thing when I was in creative non-fiction workshop. I couldn’t have foreseen a world in which I’d feel obliged to curate a multimedia memoir installation all the time and every day in order to maintain a professional reputation and register my presence as A Person in The World. Facebook and Instagram and the rest offer truth in the most soft-focus, Colbertian sense. There’s certainly risk of a call-out—the internet gives those inclined all the tools they need for fact-checking—but who has the inclination or the time to call out everybody. A fellow memoirist recently told me, on the sly, as I was hemming and hawing over my lack of material for a theme-based submission call, that a good non-fiction piece really only needs to be about 70% true.

 I wasn’t shocked about that. I even couldn’t be depressed about it. A 70% true story in 2018 looks pretty good, right?[1] I wanted to look at him and say, the reason I stopped writing non-fiction for so long is that best-received story I wrote when I was young was only about 30% true and no one called me out on it. I didn’t. I was sure it wouldn’t have surprised him.

Truth rarely makes for satisfying narrative. We forget our epiphanies when we have them (sometimes because they’re dumb). Our intuition fails. Our will rarely rallies against distraction, let alone catastrophe. Suffering does not necessarily make us stronger. We’re undone by small tragedies far more often than we triumph over the large ones. We resist change. We don’t get rid of things, and when we do, we tend to pick, if not the wrong things, then the easiest to throw away. For many of us, life is an excruciating re-watch of a movie in which the protagonist continually makes all the wrong choices. And even as we yell passionately from the other side don’t open that door, don’t have that drink, don’t text that guy, don’t stay at that job, don’t let people treat you like that, she, or rather we go on, doing the stupid thing over and over again.

People like a snappy ending, a triumphant conclusion, a real sense you’ve overcome, you’ve survived, that you’re stronger, better, wiser.  I’m not always good at those.  I try to cleave to what happened, to what I remember, even if what happened was unsatisfying, banal, and without the requisite uplift. The best thing I can offer is silly, irrelevant anecdotes that end only with the promise that I’m still alive and as long as I am there will certainly be more of the same sort  silly, irrelevant anecdotes. They’re usually true, even if they’re rarely dramatic or beautiful.

Sometimes, in flashes, they’re  even a little bit honest.



[1] I mean, have you looked at Politifact recently?


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A Brief Word on Melon Balls

After college, my little sister planned events at a historic mansion in the state capitol. The house sat at the center of a lush city park in the center of a once-shabby, since-gentrified historic neighborhood blocks from the Governor’s Mansion, the capitol building itself, and the shiny, unmemorable skyscrapers familiar to any city with a banking presence and a hankering to call itself New South. Local preservation groups had, over the years, collected a village worth of historic buildings—an old chapel, a clapboard store front, a cottage that had been the birthplace of the second-worst American president named Andrew–and moved them onto the property

Sometimes I would drive out and meet my sister at event conclusion and walk around with her in the damp, green, while she turned off lights and checked the locks on centuries-old doors. My reward was usually a beer at a nearby pub, or an invite to a fundraising gala held on property, despite not having any funds or any way to raise them. I’d show up in a pink satin dress, drink out of a champagne fountain, and run around barefoot in the grass  when the event was upstaged by a thunderstorm, fetching umbrellas for rain-shy dowagers.

The house itself was a more modest version of what you imagine when I say southern mansion which is true of much aptly describes most of the antebellum architecture here in the Vale of Humility. It was also quite haunted, if you believed the stories. My sister ushered paranormalist video crews, of both huckster and credulous persuasions, around the mansion and listened as they recounted their otherworldly encounters.

The haunting came on an otherwise, innocent, sunny afternoon, at another white table-cloth and tiered pastry tray event. As my sister completed her last minute tasks in the parlor, she gave a look to the food the caterers had supplied. The brie room was temperature. The fruit plate, perfectly arranged. But then as she turned to walk away, a single melon ball rose from the plate and levitated across the room. My sister was gobsmacked, and fled the scene before the cursed fruit could find its final rest.

My sister’s best friend at the time was skeptical at the recounting. And after numerous queries, it emerged that the melon ball had perhaps not so much floated as rolled off the  tray, a likely victim of gravity and clumsy caterer handling. My sister’s friend gave her a hard time about it, and henceforth shorthanded that variety of good-story-serving hyperbole, common to our family as  A Melon Ball.



A Thief’s Journal

To begin with, I didn’t steal The Shirt. I got it for Christmas from my Nana, which meant my mother bought it and signed Nana’s name to the card, because lord, shopping takes so much out of you and just go ahead and add that to my account, honey.

The Shirt itself was nothing to write home about. It was silver and velvet and fitted with one of those non-functional, Liliputian-scaled breast pockets that were a thing for about a minute and a half in 1994.  It came from the Gap because, again, 1994, and in those days none of us would have been caught dead in khakis but we’d tacitly agreed it was okay to shop there, because we were doing so ironically or post-ironically and our middle class mothers needed a place to buy Christmas gifts because they were worried we might catch something terrible, like lockjaw or poverty, from thrift-shopping.

I don’t know the exact count on how many people got The Shirt for Christmas that year, but I’m guessing it was a fair number of us, even among the admittedly miniscule student body at my women-only liberal arts college in Virginia. I didn’t think too hard on it, most because by February, I’d basically stopped wearing anything I didn’t pull out of a dollar box at the Salvation army, and so I was surprised when I opened my campus mailbox around Valentine’s Day and found a letter informing me, in police-report style terms that I had been accused of stealing a silver velvet t-shirt, size large, from the dorm laundry room by a girl on the first floor I knew only by her enthusiasm for tie-dyed Dartmouth t-shirts. She reported that I’d been seen wearing something similar “in what looked like several sizes too small and looking very guilty” around campus. I’d appeared to her suspicious, unreliable, weird. Not like the other girls.

That part was probably true. I was fat, as she’d so kindly pointed out. I had purple hair. I didn’t really hang out with my classmates.  I was in the process of trying to transfer. Not like the other girls was my mantra, my raison d’etre. The only thing I had in common with her at all was a silver t-shirt, owned by thousands of girls and probably a few gender-non-conforming dudes.

I figured I’d clear it up in a jiffy. After all, I hadn’t done it. I went to Dartmouth T-shirt’s dorm room. Her roommate opened the door and promptly shut in my face with a she doesn’t want to talk to you until Honor Court, thief. I called my mother. She was livid. She told me to go to the Dean’s Office, which I did. He told me he’d already heard from my mother, my grandmother and the manager of The Gap at the Asheville Mall. Receipts had been faxed. He said I was very lucky to have such a charming mother but none of it mattered because I would be judged by a jury of my peers. They would decide whether I appeared innocent or if I were guilty. They would determine how I should be punished, if I should be allowed to continue as a student at Women’s College or be expelled. “That’s how honor court works. Your friends and classmates decide”

I didn’t have many friends on campus. I said so.  He told me I should be more social, that it would be a shame to squander the opportunity to befriend so many bright young women. He smiled, in this greasy, invidious, limp mustache in a Confederate uniform way, as if to say, you brought this on yourself, weirdo. If you’d just go to an ice cream social like a nice southern girl and learn to ride a pony or something, none of of this would have ever happened to you

I’d never wanted to go to Women’s College. Everyone knew that. Probably even the Dean knew that. But I had no intention of getting expelled either. I’ve always been a solid You can’t fire me, I quit sort of person. I’d survived three years of high school with little more than a few demerits for dress code violation. If I was going down, it ought to be for open rebellion against an oppressive regime or actual commandeering-a-ship-on-the-high-seas piracy, or, like, maybe stealing the horses from my debutante classmates, selling them on the black market, and using the money to pay tuition at a college I actually wanted to attend.

My few campus friends came up with all sorts of interesting small acts of defiance. My downtown friends–mostly boys, and thus truly ambivalent about Women’s School as concept—were bolder. My favorite notion was that  I should find a Steve McQueen type to steal the Dean’s Beemer and maybe drive it into the Chancellor’s swimming pool.  I didn’t know any Steve McQueen types. I had a crush on a red-headed townie that liked weird funny novels. I was pretty sure he didn’t like me back though. Not in that way. Certainly in no way that would lend itself to futile and dangerous grand gestures

But they were all convinced I was innocent. I didn’t feel exactly innocent. I felt, actually, like I’d been busted with the right charge, but the wrong crime. Because I was a thief, just not a thief of silver velvet t-shirts. Instead, I took diner mugs and ashtrays, candles, hymnals, and unattended holy books, the Sunday Times that was still delivered weekly to the professor on sabbatical, dog-eared, mass market romance novels from beach houses and bed and breakfast bookshelves, gas station toilet paper, bank pens, motel towels, drinking glasses, motel ice buckets, Kleenex, dining hall hot sauce, three or four bottles of terrible Chardonnay from an alumni weekend fundraiser, a tray of cubed cheddar cheese and grapes from the same event, cigarette lighters, a semi-functional table lamp left on the  sidewalk outside the admissions office, a broken garden statue from the lawn beside the chapel, a fishbowl full of brightly colored condoms from the university infirmary and a globe sized half-shattered disco-ball left under the Donations sign at a local Goodwill after hours. And that’s to say nothing the stories I was encouraged to steal and weave into fiction in writing workshop. Or other people’s experiences which I pilfered and remade into my own in order to make myself seem less like the total loser nerd virgin that I was at age 18.

Ironically, my friends at women’s college were far more brazen and adept at theft than I was. They could leave Thalhimer’s with a season’s worth of unpaid-for cashmere sweaters under their college logo-ed anorak and confidently stroll into a Virginia convenience store in broad daylight, clearly stuff two bottles of wine and a carton of cigarettes into their shirt and walk outside without as much as a second glance from the cashier. I lacked their audacity. I didn’t have their looks, their confidence or their resources to finagle my way out of getting actually, seriously busted. And sometimes I struggled the square the morality, like, you’re shoplifting five dollar earrings while wearing pearls, right? What gives? But I didn’t say anything, because what did I know? I was, after all, a lying total loser nerd virgin.  And shockingly, they still wanted to be my friend.

The day of my honor court trial my mother took off work and drove to Virginia. She came with my aunt and my grandmother. I put on my nice, non-dollar-box- clothes and brushed my hair. My friends sat around me in the dim of the Administration lobby after hours. We made small talk, bolstered by the occasional—everything will be fine. I watched the yellow plane of light shine under the conference room door and wondered if they’d started without me.

I want to say we sat there for hours, but in reality, it was maybe ten minutes before a few women, upperclassmen, emerged from the room. The dean followed and announced that my accusers had bailed on honor court and as such, the entire proceeding would be canceled and charges against me dropped.  He coughed awkward, gave a little oh, the capricious whims of silly women! shrug and hoped we weren’t terribly inconvenienced.

My mother was furious. My friends relieved. And I don’t know how I was. I stood there in the slant light of the dim lobby, watching those shiny haired girls wander off giggling down the stairs, clearly relieved at not having to sit through another lame honor court, thinking my peers, those girls count as my peers, thinking, they could have expelled me, thinking, is this karma for the cheese tray?

 “You don’t belong here,” said my mother, on the way out of the administration office. “As soon as this school year is over, I promise that you don’t have to come back.”

 I’d spent seven months in Virginia in a state of petulant, overgrown adolescent rage mostly built on disappointment that I could not, for reasons entirely beyond my control be where I wanted or who I wanted to be.  I talked shit about the school for stupid reasons. I catalogued all the reasons I thought I didn’t belong there without ever really believing I really didn’t belong there. And with that thought came the first earth-shifting, discombobulating tremor of what if I don’t belong anywhere at all?

The morning after the mistrial, I found a copy of “The Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet outside my door

“I think maybe the universe is trying to send you a message,” said one of my friends, when I asked if she’d left it.

“That I should plan a heist?”

“That you should steal away from this place, before someone tries to say you did.”

Three weeks later, at the end of the semester, I left Women’s College for good.

And yeah, I took couple rolls of toilet paper for the road.





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Lake Monsters

I hadn’t cleared the Governor’s School Audition and my parents couldn’t afford a fancy performing arts program. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t find a job walking distance from the house. And so, I accepted an exile to Virginia the summer before senior year, where instead of traditional teenage things, I loitered around the antique shop reading Faulkner novels, eating Twizzlers, and smoking right out in the open because Nana wanted someone to smoke with.  My social coterie consisted of elderly customers at the shop who wondered aloud if I knew how important it was to bring good gloves and my own silver to college. A silver pattern can say a lot about a girl’s moral character. Pick the wrong one and you could end up married to a horse man from Maryland and you know what that means. I didn’t, but I made sure to include it in the long letters I wrote to my friends like  that new Fugazi record is rad as fuck and Nana’s friend Eleanor is worried I’m going to end up with a centaur from Baltimore if I don’t wear gloves.  Sidenote: should I join the D.A.R. and write a ‘zine about it?  They sent postcards back recounting awkward hook-ups with skateboarding Mathletes and illicit “Unweeded Garden” themed weed parties with the “Hamlet” cast at Governor’s School and hey did you hear that Wonderland got a job at the mall record store back in Asheville? How do you figure she managed that?  I acted like I wasn’t jealous. I was jealous. Not just of Governor’s School and “Unweeded Garden” parties and Wonderland’s improbable record store job, but of the people I knew with dumb summer jobs back home, spending nights cruising around town, smoking at the Waffle House, figuring out elaborate new schemes to see bands play in Athens or Atlanta or Chapel Hill with or without parental consent.

I doubt Nana observed any unhappiness on my part, but my aunt and uncle were a generation closer to my age. They also might have  also been concerned I ‘d suffer permanent lung damage from hotboxing Virginia Slims Ultra Lights in an unventilated house (Nana believed fresh air caused disease and sunlight would damage her oriental rugs, or vice-versa). Or maybe they were worried I’d find myself betrothed to some grand dame’s grand-nephew Randolph Randolph Taliaferro IV–“Nabs” for short–who’d been expelled from Hampden-Sydney College for dueling with a crossbow.  Whatever the case, my Aunt suggested I come with them to the lake for a day of swimming, waterskiing and riding around on their friends’ boat. Their friends were fun, she promised. “And wouldn’t it be nice to get out of the house for a day?”

It would. I hadn’t spent much time outside in a bathing suit, despite it being a cool 90 in the shade and Nana’s house being a block from the neighborhood pool.  Nana was cautious around water, nervous even at the shallowest of shallow ends. She’d nearly drowned as a young woman, and also believed that wet hair would both give you pneumonia and other people the wrong impression . Only marginal characters had wet hair—criminals, trashy women, the sort of girls that end up shacked up with centaurs in Fell’s Point.

“Here’s the thing, though” said my aunt. “Maybe don’t tell Nana you’re getting in the lake.”


The lake didn’t used to be a lake.

In my part of the world, we don’t really have natural lakes. Not the kind you’re imagining anyway.  Those that do exist are easterly and tend to be indistinguishable from swamp. Th big freshwater bodies of water tend to be manmade.  Smith Mountain Lake, the lake my aunt and uncle would take me to, is a hydroelectric lake, stretching over part of three counties, created from the damming of the Roanoke and Blackwater Rivers in the early 1960s. The developer, Appalachian Power, began buying up land as early as the 1920s. The county was poor, then, had been poor, would continue to be poor, even outside the Depression years. The time was ripe to convince landowners to offload land, especially low-lying acres at the river’s edge. The dam broke ground until 1961. They started filling lake a couple years later, in September of 1963

Power lakes transformed the south.  New dams electrified rural communities and smoothed the topography by obliterating everything under the waterline. It’s hard for me to grieve for a thing I can’t imagine, but Nana knew the underneath of Smith Mountain Lake when it wasn’t underneath,  the  houses, churches, graveyards, a whole part of the world before they flooded it. Part of her family’s farm was under the water. Her people had owned  land  on both sides of the road in that that part of Franklin County, since some apocryphal 18th century ride as far as you can in a day and between the stakes is  yours grant. Then those people married the rest of her people. They planted tobacco. They built a big house. The bought slaves. The war came. Twin brothers, Saunie and Sammy, went off to fight. Great-great great Uncle Francis buried the silver in the tall grass down by the Blackwater River when he heard the Yankees were coming. They lost one of the twin brothers, the big house, the fortune, even the map to the silver. Everything save the land itself. This was understandable and justifiable. War is hell. Wrong side of history. Wrong side of morality. And these days, I’m not sure there was ever as much as they claimed.[1]. And by  the time, Nana entered the world, the farm was no longer profitable. Her own father had long-since decamped west into the mountains to find better and more reliable employment as a coal miner. He probably would have stayed at it too had a mine collapse not broken his back and sent him home to try and feed his growing family with tobacco farm left fallow in the years he collected a regular paycheck.

I don’t know whether my great-grandfather got any money for the land under the lake or whether his slightly-better-off cousins did. I suspect Nana associates that lake with loss, even if it is loss a thing she never really had. I remember when they flooded the valley, she’d say. And I have this image of her, still a young woman, her dark curls billowing in some cinematic big fan breeze, standing on the rise above the farmhouse, beside the rusting skeleton of the old Model T my great-grandfather called the jalopy, watching the valley beyond slowly disappear under the turgid confluence of two rivers, under a matte twilight.

I can’t recall exactly what portion of that scene Nana described, and what my imagination filled. But it absolutely didn’t play out like that in real life. For one thing, it took a long time—three years–to flood the valley. For another, even if Nana had been standing there on top (perhaps skirt hem, not hair, rippling in the wind because her hair was already permed, set, and shellacked into her queenly bubble by then), she wouldn’t have been able to see anything, save more farm, a dark scrim of trees, the parallel gash of tractor tires in red clay dead-ended at the edge of what an small-scale tobacco farmer, crippled from a mine accident, could hope to maintain at sixty years old.  There was no view of the lake. Had there been a lake view the land might have been worth something.

Nana described the  flooding of the valley and the loss of the landscape over dinner the night before I went with my Aunt and Uncle and implored me to  please don’t get in the lake, honey. There are things underneath. Promise me you won’t get in the lake. 

I had never visited the lake. I hadn’t even seen it until a few years before when  I visited my great-grandmother at the farm for the last time before she died. I’d been so confused by talk of the lake—how big it was, how close it was, how heavily it bore on the family consciousness. I couldn’t even visualize it; my mother drove me down there on the way back to Nana’s. The lake was half a mile, maybe less, down the country road, past old barns and single wides and tidy ranch houses with plaster statuary, past the Methodist Church. The road dead ended at a boat ramp into a shiny green-black surface that reflected the overcast sky and the gabled roofline of massive lakeside A-frame on the hill across the cove. I remember thinking, I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to London. And yet, it takes this long for someone to show me this stupid lake just down from the farm.


My aunt and uncle waited in the driveway the morning we went to the lake, allowing me to slip out of the house before Nana had a chance to scoff at my purple high tops (then scrawled with boys’ names, song lyrics, and that  most cliché of Oscar Wilde quotes) or remind me that a heavier girl, such as myself, should avoid shorts, especially denim cut-offs, which, like eating while standing, smoking while walking, and wearing pretty much any shade of frosted lipstick, broadcast to the world that you were almost certainly a prostitute.

I’d spent the night dreaming of monumental drowned kingdoms, more Xanadu than Franklin County, inhabited by pale, barnacled wraiths, grasping at me as I tried to surface. I tried to shake off the chill by making eyes at my one-year-old cousin in the backseat beside me. He babbled happily, and I wigged my fingers over his golden head and tried, like a good witch in a fairy tale, to endow him with all the qualities I thought he’d need to be a success at life. Be crazy smart and funny. Be good at something cool, like skateboarding. Don’t be weird around girls. Don’t be mean to people. Have decent taste in music.[2]

My aunt and uncle’s friends’ place was in a leafy cove at the end of a gravel road. They’d bought the lot and marked their property with a fancy, multi-tiered boat dock, with diving platforms and boat storage and charcoal grill. The matching house, with multi-tiered porches would come sometime later. For now, we toted coolers and baby paraphernalia down the muddy hillside, the same carnal red as the earth under Granny’s farm, which I was really trying hard not to think about. My aunt noticed my hesitation, the way I stared down at the ground, and complimented my shoes. I’d love to wear shoes like that , but I’m too old, she said. I found that both perplexing and sad, but it took my mind off the drowned world.

We gathered on of the top deck, warm and new enough that you could smell the stain, spread out towels and let the July temperatures slowly work us toward the dark water beneath. It moved, but barely,  from the distant wakes of motorboats. Dragonflies hovered on the surface, alighting on my bare arm, already sunburned by the time I finished lunch.

The rest of the crowd splashed off the pier with inner tubes and pool noodles. I dangled my feet in the water. You should dive in, they said. I could jump in, maybe, if I worked myself up to it, but certainly not headfirst. What if my cheek grazes a headstone? What if I impale myself on the spire of an old church? What if something tried to pull me back in?

I didn’t say any of this. I knew how it would sound. And the only thing scarier than being afraid is other people knowing what you’re afraid of, because that means they know how to scare you, or worse, humiliate you. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts. I didn’t believe in ghosts, at least ghosts of  the literal, ethereal, hollow-eyed sense, but I was—I am– a southerner, and I knew for a fact that places have memory. And what sort of memory might find me under the surface?

I was hot, though. So, when my uncle told me to come in, the water feels great, I stripped off my shorts and leapt in. The water stung my thighs and as I plunged feet first. I felt the shocking chill under the sun warmed surface. I kept my eyes closed until I emerged. I laughed, gasping. “Feels great,” I said, because it did, and because it kept me from squealing when something bony stroked the water-treading sole of my foot.


I grew up on a lake. It didn’t used to be a lake either, but a bit of low-lying scrub around the edge of a creek, dammed in the 1920s to anchor a housing development, where it spent ten years as a popular swimming site before so many people drowned that the city shut down the beach and made swimming there illegal. People still did.  Swim, I mean. At night, as a child,  I’d sleep upstairs with the windows open and listen as police bullhorned Get out of the lake and tinny-voiced swimmers called back Come get us at on crickety summer nights. The water was foul and the bed so littered with trash and debris that illicit swimmers got caught in downed trees or on rusty car doors and died. I remember catching the school bus to elementary school on late August mornings at the bottom of the hill, riding past police vehicles, ambulances, and for hours, listening to the drone of a boat motor while they dragged the lake for whatever missing teenager had jumped in and never surfaced.

My mother loved living on the lake, but she was overprotective. She worried about me getting too near, getting in, walking the dam, hanging out on the rocks under the bridge at the spillway, where she believed dangerous men lurked in the crags and might steal me away.

We weren’t lake people. Like most people that live inland, we vacationed on the coast, at the edge of the continent, in less claustrophobic waters. Our one big lake trip had been  a trip arranged by my father’s company that found us at a muddy power lake, just down from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in a cluster of moldy, bug-infested guest houses my parents famously referred to as The Last Resort.  I was really young on that trip. What I mostly remember were giant furry spiders in the bathtub and the passel of shirtless men with droopy mustaches and Farrah Fawcett hair in the house next door who built bonfires and rebel-yelled into the night.

I never told anyone I was afraid of those men. I never told anyone that I worried they were the ones my mother believed would come grabbing at me under the bridge, that they might set everything on fire so I would have to take my chances with the lake.


When my aunt and uncle brought me home, I was sunburned and damp. Nana clucked at the cut-offs. You know what people will think if you wear shorts like that?  She asked if I had a good time. I said yes, because I had. The lake was beautiful, by the time we took the boat out, I’d almost forgotten the underneath. I’d fully surrendered to the simple pleasure of feeling the wind get handsy me as I sped over the water. We caught air on unexpected wakes.  I giggled like the dumb teenager I was. I didn’t look down.

Nana didn’t ask if I got in the water, though she certainly would have noticed that my hair was wet, like a marginal person or someone who’d crossed her fingers when I promised not to get in the lake. She chose to believe I hadn’t.  That’s her way, a stubborn insistence to stay buoyant, to keep from getting dragged beneath.

Whatever you have to do to stay above water, I guess.


Some years after my aunt and uncle took me to the lake, my mother would marry a man with a love of lakes and motor boats. We would start spending summers on various regional lakes that didn’t used to be lakes. My favorite was a remote gem of a power lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina, a few gasps from both the Georgia line and a fairy tale of an old-growth forest. I was dazzled by waterfalls that came tumbling down lush mountainsides at the terminus of each cove as I sat on the prow of my stepfather’s boat, letting Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot soundtrack the violet hour through discman headphones. I thought might write a story, maybe even a long one, about a woman trying to suss out some dark secret sunk deep beneath the surface of the water of a remote power lake. I spent a summer at the library looking at old maps and plans for dams and historical photos of lakebed clearances, which were, it should be noted, clearances.

On some intellectual level, I guess I knew that the houses and towns and graveyards and churches had been moved before the water came, that stubborn landowners didn’t sit down for a last meal as some river water tidal wave smashed through the kitchen, that real life didn’t play out like the end of O Brother Where Art Thou, that Nana really and truly did not literally stand on a hill, silhouetted against the sunset as if god were her witness and she’d never be hungry again, and watch her family history disappear under the lake. But imagination is a tricky thing, almost as precarious as memory. Were there really white men with droopy mustaches that rebel-yelled throughout the night, while three-year-old me shivered in moth-clogged sheets in  their reflected firelight at The Last Resort? Probably not, as it happens. But I still dream about them.


There’s a term for when the lake achieves full lake-ness. Full pond. It sounds so innocuous, so gentle. As if a park bench and a willow tree materialize on a bank perhaps with some cattails, a lily pad and a mallard or two and you saunter down to the edge with a canvas hat and a fishing pole. I’ve gone full pond. Full pond doesn’t evoke elemental transformation. It doesn’t suggest irrevocable loss. Full pond describes a series of black and white photos of a clear-cut tract of land and a puddle slowly growing in the center. Nothing to be afraid of.

A few weeks ago, I read that UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that temperatures were on are on track to rise a devastating 3 degrees Fahrenheit possibly over the next eleven years and almost certainly by 2040. And with that comes catastrophic storms, droughts, fire, famine, extinctions, heat waves and, of course, floods. Homes will be lost. Communities will disappear. Cities will be inundated. Entire counties could disappear from the map, lost under a rising sea, still not yet at full pond. The houses, churches, graveyards will be Miami, Venice, whole islands, most of Bangladesh . . .

I dreamed about the lake that night. I dreamed about the cove down the road from Granny’s farm, but it was dark, and teeming with men on flaming skiffs like Viking funeral barges. The water was rising. My ankles had already disappeared into the murky depths, and as my clothes filled, I turned my back to the lake and my eyes to the sky. I let myself fall with grim resignation, back onto the surface, into the depths. The hands beneath came out of the water, but instead of pulling me down, they lifted me to the surface, to still my thrashing, to keep me steady until I relaxed and just floated.




[1] So many white southerners claim ownership of some improbable prelapsarian abundance before the war, it would seem that the antebellum south was entirely composed of white people living in baronial splendor  with their contented slaves. Suffice to say, this doesn’t exactly jibe with the historical record.

[2] I don’t want to brag, but this totally worked.





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At the beginning of my junior year of high school, we started leaving school after play practice—me and the Countess and the Dryad—to drive around town. I had a car, a piece of shit Honda, the color of old mayonnaise, without functional defrosters or radio. The passenger seat held a boombox, and usually the Countess holding the boombox and sometimes a collection of wasted D batteries used to power said boombox. I had just started smoking, actually smoking, not just holding a cigarette between my fingers like a woman in an old movie and pretending to puff at it.

The driving around was a real deal and critical. I’m not sure if you grew up somewhere civilized and walkable, with honest-to-Christ public transportation that I can convey to you the open-windowed, Springsteenian joys of being sixteen and barreling around your hometown under the cover of darkness, playing music loud enough to contain all your teenage feelings as you speed toward oblivion or adulthood, which might be the same thing. We liked the bendy twists and gothic black of the river roads, the lowest point in our mountainous town, and in those days a wasteland of blackened warehouses and the graffiti palimpsests all the way to the monumental ruin of the old railroad roundhouse with the shattered windows. We rode with the windows open because the cigarettes and the prickling cold of autumn made us feel kind of high. We switched records to match the mood. I liked “Disintegration” for driving. The Countess liked Cocteau Twins, but the easy favorite that fall was Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes,” courtesy of the Dryad.

I remember flying downhill on Craven St, while we shivered collectively to the minor-keyed, arpeggiated evocations of trauma and suffering. And it felt real and visceral as hell. And  it probably would have even if I had not been a girl that played piano and tried to transform myself into both a singer-songwriter and an unnatural redhead.. I was new on my musical education, barely begun to explore the seemingly infinite world of art about female pain. I  still struggled  with Kate Bush and Sylvia Plath. I was a couple seasons away from Liz Phair and Carson McCullers, a year before Kathy Acker and PJ Harvey and Riot Grrrrl (and the four-month period of time when this was my favorite song[1] in the world). I’d eventually I start to fetishize fury and wear my ironic distance like it was part of the dress code.  At sixteen, though, listening to Tori Amos recount worst thing that could happen, acapella, past the ghostly loading docks of the river district, I thought, this is amazing, this is the kind of thing that people have to hear, this is this kind of thing that could change the world.

 I know.

Hilarious, right?


I haven’t really listened to Tori Amos since the turn of the millennia. Sometime along the line, her lyrics got once too oblique and too earnest kind of at exactly the same time. The music started to sound too much like the guy doing pop covers on the piano by the escalators at Nordstrom. For a while, I wrote it off as a problem of the new stuff. Then, I started hearing all I didn’t like in the old stuff too. There were a handful of songs I could sit through without squirming. There are a couple of her songs I haven’t deleted off the hard drive.

Tori wasn’t the only artist I adored as a teenager  and fell out with as an adult. She aged a bit better than JD Salinger, slightly worse than Donna Tartt, and about the same than the entire subgenre of mostly Northern California-based, melodic punk rock (and its attached “scene”) to which I professed an embarrassingly devotional, cross-continental attachment for a few years. She is, however the only one whose songs, oblique and over-earnest as they may be, have continually re-upped on the brain over the weekend.

I probably don’t have to tell you that my life over the past few days/weeks/ months) both online and IRL, have been a constant broadcast of what women have suffered at the hands of men.   It feels like we’re bleeding out all over the public square to force a reckoning, and yet the crowd mutters on, disinterested, inured, convinced it is mere spectacle, a tale of sound and fury told by hysterics for the advancement of a political agenda.

And here’s the thing: those voices, that chorus? It may be louder now. Everything sounds like an arena hit when amplified by strangers on social media. It’s not new, though. The days we drove  too fast on the River Road wondering aloud why we crucified ourselves, every-y-day? That was about a year after Anita Hill bared her soul on Capitol Hill, was excoriated for it, and despite all she endured another shitty man assumed a shitty man assumed one of the highest judicial seats in the land. On the radio, as we drove, were  the allegations of women accusing then-candidate Bill Clinton for various acts of sexual misconduct. During the day, we listened in the bathrooms and hallways and we learned things.  We learned which teachers got handsy. We learned which boys thought they were entitled to it. We learned which parties to avoid. We didn’t learn those things because we were smarter or safer or less reckless than the other girls. We learned them  because some other girl had already faced whatever trauma,  pulled one of us aside and said, I need you to know what kind of boy he is. I want you to understand what sort of world we live in. And I need someone to know what happened to me, to believe I am telling the truth.

 And despite that, despite our efforts, at least one of us in the car had her own chapter to add to the great pain compendium by the end of semester, as horrifying as the rest, almost more horrifying because it almost sounded mundane by then, like I’d heard it before. Because had heard it before. I ‘d heard it a hundred times and it always ends the same way and I don’t know how many more  times we should be expected to endure it before someone fucking pays attention.  


I don’t have a solution. Destroy The Patriarchy sounds pretty good. Not exactly reasonable. Maybe not practical. Certainly not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

I am tired though. I am tired of talking about this. I’m tired of the same old shit. I’m tired of women (and men and non-binary people) opening their wounds time and time again to a bunch of old, white dudes who insist they see nothing. Like what in the world did half the population in the world do to deserve the Prometheus treatment? Is this really still about a goddamn apple?

I want to believe that there is a turning point. That this is a turning point. That all this suffering serves some function. I tell you my story, so you maybe won’t have to suffer as I did, even if that’s not how it works. That’s never how it works. I know my history. I know it backwards and in high heels.  I don’t like the feeling that these experiences, these testimonies, these stories, the painful recountings are just part of the landscape, an acceptable, normalized level of horror and suffering that is nothing more than a burden of womanhood, no different than puberty, from childbirth, from menopause. Did you get your period? Have you started wearing a bra? Do you have your #metoo yet?

I have friends with daughters that are about the same age I was when I hung out with the Countess and the Dryad. More than anything  I wish things had changed more since 1992 than they have. I wish people listened–actually listened– to women. I wish were trusted, without qualification, to report our actual experience, not just to each other.  I wish that a woman being hurt, harassed, assaulted (and threatened with violence should she ever report it) were seen as being as much of a tragedy as a man not getting a job. And since we’re in real beggars on horses territory, imagine a world in which men were held accountable for their actions. Imagine a world in which children were raised to know better by parents, authority figures and communities that did not accept sexual assault as a normal expression of boys being boys. 

I don’t live in that world, no matter how hard I try to pretend I do. You don’t either. We live in the one still clamorous with horrors survived and endured and endured again with each retelling all the way to oblivion or adulthood or Capitol Hill, whichever comes first.

Maybe it’s time for a different kind of song.


[1] If I’m honest, still one of my favorites

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the boys I mean are not refined.

The lowercase still felt a bit revolutionary; the content more so, they go with girls that buck and bite. We thought we were, the girls that would buck and bite. Not prudes or prims or pearlclutchers, but tough girls, brave girls. The kind of girl that could handle herself. The kind of girl who could hang with men. You aren’t like the other girls. We took it as a compliment. A badge of honor.

We scoffed at the dainty and banished the delicate. We slipped into leather jackets and believed they gave us thicker skins. We exchanged anger for sadness. We mimicked the way they talked, the way they swaggered, the way they spoke over each other, the way they sulked, the way they bragged and tried to shock. We argued. We stirred the shit. We traded licks We didn’t apologize for offending, because offending was the point. What are you? Some kind of pussy? We tried to write like we weren’t women. Present tense. First person. Block letters. All verbs and pointy adjectives. Lots of synonyms for brutal. Lots of opinion. Don’t like it? You’re stupid. Not my problem.

We valued honesty. No matter how it was delivered. We valued loyalty above all things. You don’t pull your punches, but you don’t rat someone out. Even if they do something wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes people misinterpret. Sometimes people overreact. You sure you remember it right? You sure you weren’t too drunk? We weren’t sure. And so we brushed off the slurs. We tolerated the rape jokes. We maybe told a few ourselves. The other girls were oversensitive. They were bitches. They were sluts. Not you, you’re not like other girls. They respected us. They valued our opinions. They would always have our back. They would probably always have our back. They didn’t entirely disrespect us. So long as we didn’t talk shit. So long as we didn’t get too uptight. So long as we didn’t make demands. So long as we didn’t accuse. You’re so chill I forget you’re a girl. You’re so chill I can feel okay taking a shit in your house. They would definitely take a shit in our house.

The first time a thing happened, we didn’t say anything but she didn’t exactly keep quiet. They said whatever.  Dude, that’s really fucked up. But they couldn’t really imagine it happening, because it probably wouldn’t happen to them and seriously, that guy? And when she left the room, they’d say she asked for it, she made it up, she was just looking for attention. Because they knew the guy, and like, no way would that guy, that guy’s awesome, that guy’s my hero. They figured we agreed. We wouldn’t believe some bullshit just because a girl, a girl like that, was having her period or whatever. We agreed. We forgot she was one of us. Loyalty is the most important thing. You have to earn loyalty, we guessed. She shouldn’t have said anything. It’s not like he raped her.

We weren’t the girls they dated, but sometimes they’d sleep with us. We didn’t say no if it happened because maybe we wanted it, or wanted to be among them enough that we wouldn’t risk it by making them feel embarrassed. Wanting it made you desperate. Not wanting it made you a tease. C’mon, don’t be a drag. It was usually a mistake even if they were pretty cute or good kissers or sweet when no one else was looking. They never meant for it to happen.  It was on us if it got complicated. Just like a girl, they’d say. Freaking out and getting all weird. We knew what they meant. She wasn’t one of us. We were different. We were rational. We were not like other girls.

You never knew when you’d finally have enough. Maybe a particular joke. Maybe that one awful story. Maybe the first time you hear them say things they always say but this time about your sister, your mentor, your best friend. Maybe it will be the last time they jokingly grab your tit and call you toots, but like, ironically, while you go fetch them another round of beer, and you realize you’ve been fetching beer for how long now? for a bunch of nearly-grown men who think it’s hilarious to grope you and maybe what makes you not like the other girls is that they respect you even less. But probably, probably, it is the moment when they slag off another girl– as being hysterical, weak, an attention whore– and you realize the words they use to discredit her are your own. It will have been something you said offhand that one time trying to be cool,  and the girl they turn it around on will be someone just like you or maybe, just maybe, someone that is you.

the boys I mean are not refined, even when may go to school in coats and ties and know how to turn the right phase to open the right door and assume the refined success to which they were entitled . Some of us still hang with them, still making excuses, still staying silent, as we clatter down corridors of power in uncomfortable shoes helping them ruin other women because we we are not like other girls. Because we still think those boys respect us. Because they would never do that to us. Not unless we deserved it. Because they believe in loyalty and they will be loyal and they will always trust us and believe in us and have our backs because of how much they respect us and how very, very much we mean to them.

A speck?

A smidge?

Nothing at all?






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Fashion Victim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She let me go.


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

[2] No.

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

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

They usually didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why indeed?

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

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

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

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Burn Out

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

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

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

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

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

Heat: 1
Alison: 0


Dog Days

In August of 1991, my father woke on a Saturday morning and decided to make beignets from a Café Du Monde-branded mix from the supermarket. The idea was relive the charms of dreamy springtime mornings in the Vieux Carre, to serve my little sister some sugared, pillow-shaped lagniappe on hot, dry morning 700 or so miles northeast of Jackson Square.

Dad wasn’t much a of a cook. Food at his house was always a tricky proposition. Items purchased at the grocery store were likely to stay in his cupboard or refrigerator until eaten. If ever eaten. Everything turned into a philosophical debate about permanence in Dad’s pantry. There was a can of red clam sauce that spent the better part of two decades perched like a sentry on the top shelf. I wondered whether Dad bought it as food or as set piece in  some esoteric still life, alongside dusty piles of Communication Arts Magazine, Sunday NYTs for the recycle bin, a novelty relief mug of Popeye the Sailor Man with a cloudy bunch of ancient dried lavender exploding out of the top of his cap

Heating implements proved similarly challenging.  Stovetops and ovens  required observation to see that they did not overheat. Evidence suggests my father had the temperature set too high on for deep frying. Fire erupted from the pot, catching  the cabinets. Dad, in a moment of panic, seized the flaming skillet and chucked if off into the overgrowth under his third-floor balcony. He received several third-degree burns for his efforts. It is a miracle that the entire building, the entire mountainside, perhaps all of North Asheville did not go up in flame. His pet bird, a speckled, inquisitive finch named Atticus, caged throughoug on the sunny end of the dining room table, lived to tweet on for another day, though he would spend the rest of his life smokier shade of gray.

My little sister, at the first sign of trouble, followed the instructions she learned in elementary school. She stopped, dropped and rolled out of the apartment, went calmly and quietly down the stairs, and sat on the curb on the far side of the parking lot to await the arrival of the fire truck. Some neighbor smelled smoke and actually called the fire department. Shortly thereafter, a red truck howled into the parking lot, followed in short order by my mother (who lived about a mile away), an ambulance, Dad’s girlfriend and her two children. My sister went home with my mother. My father was spirited off to the hospital, where he was given some painkillers, wrapped in gauze and left to contemplate his doughnut-adjacent near-death experience


I was not around the morning of the fire because I was standing beside a girl with a boy’s name at the far end of the hockey field. Despite the fact that she was a year younger than I and also a new student, everyone already knew her except for me, which was not unusual. Everything about field hockey preseason, so far, was  an except for me proposition, including, but not limited to: knowing how to play the game, having actual athletic ability, being able to run a mile without passing out, enjoying the spirit of competition, fitting comfortably in the uniform, having appropriate equipment, having any desire to play a sport ever, understanding the first thing about boarding school culture, private school culture, and if you believed the locker room gossip, having gotten to at least third base with a boy over summer break, and not actively wishing for death because death must be better than drills.

I could feel a flood of sweat drenching my face, stinging my eyes with salt. I just watched the girl with the boy’s name trace the lettering on her t-shirt. 7 Seconds printed seven times. I asked her what kind of band 7 seconds was and she rolled her eyes. This last day of pre-season would be our last day without practice uniforms, dreaded things with sleeveless tops and see-through white shorts. Why do the teenage boys get baggy blue shorts and the teenage girls get tight white shorts when we’re the ones that bleed once a month? I watched the center forward sprint across the field in a Grateful Dead shirt and thought it was weird that all the hippies played offense.

The girl with the boy’s name removed her sunglasses after being reprimanded for the fourth time and said something about how field hockey coaches are such complete cunts.”

The coach blew the whistle, indicating that we should start running.

I looked above me, briefly. The hazy blue August sky began to melt around the sun and the color swirled away. I felt a wave of nausea. I thought I might pass out. I think I might pass out, I said to the girl with the boy’s name.

She gave me a look of withering contempt, observing the fat rolls clearly visible under my off-brand soccer shorts, my Shakespeare printed EXPRESSO YOURSELF! T-shirt, my grape juice colored Chuck Taylors. Everyone else already had cleats. Don’t be a baby. You’ll be fine.

 She was right. I was just out of shape. I was just a whiner. I’ll be fine. I thought. I should totally get over myself. And I fell backward hard onto the grass.

It would not be the only or even the most infamous time I lost consciousness during my sophomore year of high school, but it would be the first time I woke up surrounded by a huddle of girls I barely knew at my new school, with a tiny blonde coach forcing a water bottle out me and asking how many fingers she was holding up. I drank the whole bottle and imagined the luxury of spending the next few hours napping in the cool dim of the infirmary. I thought the world looked a little different. The light brighter, the grass blades knife-edged. Did passing out change the world?  But once after the coach was convinced I didn’t have a concussion, she told me she thought I’d passed out because of the heat and the dehydration. So, go and do a couple of laps around the field as penalty for getting too hot and not asking for a water break.  I clambered up, dusting off grass stain and heaved into a run.

Until field hockey preseason, my only recent athletic training consisted of whatever happened at public junior high school PE, where our stereotypically mulleted gym teacher had long since given up trying to build up our endurance or engage us in sport after all but one of the twenty-seven members of  first period class failed the pull-up section of The President’s Physical Fitness Test. When the gym teach announced she’d be flunking us all, thee class collectively shrugged. I kind of freaked out. I’d never flunked anything in my life. I went to the gym teacher’s office and asked if it would be possible for me to do an extra credit project. Could I write a paper? Or maybe do a presentation? I could probably put together a report about the President. Or maybe someone who does sports things, like Andre Agassi or Jane Fonda? She looked up at me for a good while, blinking, likely trying to figure out how in hell I ended up in first period gym, because the rest of the nerds didn’t come in until at least fourth period, [1] by which point she could adequately caffienate. Then she told me I’d probably die of a heart attack if I didn’t get into shape and to get out of her office.

We spent the rest of that semester doing a unit on “Social Dancing,” which was basically variations on the electric slide, and then they renovated the girl’s  gym, so we spent the rest of the year in the weight room, a carpeted basement cell that liked like a gulag and smelled like death. The gym teacher locked us in and I’d spend the hour sprawled on mildewed wrestling mats, listening to weird hospital stories from a childhood friend who’d recently returned to school after brain surgery. The rest of my classmates argued about boys, listened to LL Cool J and played increasingly heated matches a card game we called Egyptian Rat Fuck.

I’d  since left my fellow degenerates from first period gym at the public high school at the end of ninth grade and enrolled in boarding school, where there appeared to be no expectant mothers and no impressive surgical scars and no one that looked like they couldn’t pass the President’s Physical Fitness Test with flying colors, save me. The athletic fields were rolling green lawns surrounded by English garden cottages with climbing roses and half-timbered Tudor classroom buildings. It seemed several time zones and maybe a couple of centuries removed from my vaguely Brutalist Junior High that always smelled like dirty socks and fish sticks, though, in reality it was about five miles across town.

My dad had gone to boarding school in Virginia, but I’d only been tangentially aware that places like The School existed until the eighth grade, when some combination of Holden Caulfield, “Dead Poet’s Society” and the girls with the best hair at my summer camp suggested another world might exist. I imagined chilly, Gothic passageways thick with  angular, intellectual teenagers in dark wool, imprisoned by parental expectation and WASP orthodoxy, sexually repressed, bullied by wealthy degenerates,  brimming with class resentment and was like, that’s my jam.

But alongside dress codes and behavioral standards and academic achievement (all of which I’d willingly signed on for), the  School also required students to play competitive sports. I was neither fast, nor strong. I lacked both depth perception and hand eye coordination. My instinct, at realizing a projectile of any kind might be headed toward me, was to run away as fast as possible, and then take to rest with a novel and a hot tea to soothe my rattled nerves. I couldn’t figure out why it mattered who won. I didn’t like wearing shorts.

There were two sports at the school you could play in a skirt: tennis and Field Hockey. I knew for a fact that I couldn’t play tennis. I didn’t know I couldn’t play field hockey. I merely knew I hadn’t. Also, the blue tartan kilts were adorable.

Pre-season was engineered to prepare us for team try-outs. But that was all theater, because when everyone is required to play a sport, the coach can’t really prevent anyone from making the team. The coach, however, ran practice  as if our very lives depended[2] on winning the game. Practices were an all-day affair, at the very hottest time of the  year. The coach howled. She screamed. She raged. She belittled. She delivered her best impression of a banshee impersonating a drill sergeant. She recognized me immediately for what I was—a season-long benchwarmer, a lost cause, an apt-to-pass out drain on team morale, who kept trying to use the excuse of kilts to discuss the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the subsequent disappointments of the Stuart dynasty.

We’d broke for a late lunch the day of my fainting and walked up from the gym to eat buffet-style on white tablecloths under chandeliers in the vaulted Arts & Crafts dining hall. I watched boys saunter in. There were so many boys.  The School was only a decade and some change into being coed. Girls were still a slight minority. I considered for the first time how it might be possible to be boy crazy. To be so enamored of the boys and their inherent boy-ness that you could end up a victim of constant, arbitrary desire, turned on by a  haircut, an Adam’s Apple, the awkward  limbs of a still fresh growth spurt, the smell of laundry detergent and inexpertly applied Old Spice. The nervous starry sky electricity that came at realizing you’d been touched, even accidentally, by a boy you didn’t even know you were attracted to. It was a heady feeling and I already felt sort of light-headed, like, I wonder if I actually sustained injury from that fall. Like hitting that grass too hard had triggered the last bit of my late-blooming adolescence. Like I might have lost a few brain cells, but I was suddenly sure that I was mostly heterosexual.    

I wandered back to practice past the pink stone folly of a chapel, what-ifing. After a week of practice, I hadn’t really made any friends. I worried, what if I can’t find the Smiths fans? What if no one here is actually into poetry? The end of pre-season meant the beginning of the semester. It meant classes. It meant that would have to prove myself in all the things I actually cared about. It meant that I would have to walk into convocation on the first day and try to act like it wasn’t the slightest bit weird to see hundred and twenty-five teenaged boys in coats and ties. I would have to sell people on the fact that something so graceless and unlovely and ordinary as me belonged among smart, beautiful rich people at a place that looked objectively like a fairytale.

I had misgivings. Maybe the devil you know. I didn’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t have dreamed. Going to The School had been my choice and toward the end, my exhausting negotiation. Second thoughts were the sort of thing you kept quiet unless you wanted to hear an earful from your as a former public school teacher, I have a lot of issues with private school as a concept mother. Second thoughts were best not aired unless you wanted your father to take back your tuition money and use it buy himself a new set of golf clubs or a couple weeks at Outward Bound.

I was on the field on that last day, after lunch, when I saw the nurse jog down the hill, white uniform startling against the freshly barbered, late August green. Sunstruck, I watched, aware that I should be watching the game I was theoretically playing, the ball I was theoretically charged with keeping from goal, and I saw she was saw she was muttering and as she got closer I thought I heard How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel. And I was about to say, hot. Or maybe not like I thought it would. But as she neared, I saw she was saying a name, not howdoesitfeel but alisonfields. And that was me. Alison Fields, Alison Fields.

 The coach blew the whistle. I shuddered, because I felt her eyes on me. She sighed and pointed me toward the nurse. I jogged off the field. Several girls walked behind me.

The nurse took a breath, your father is in the hospital. There was a fire at his house. Your mom wanted you to know he’s okay and your sister is okay. I gawped. I wanted to know how or why. The nurse said, your Mom said he was trying to make beignets.

 One of the other girls laughed. It was funny. I asked if I could go call my mother. The nurse said, Fine. But the coach said, if he’s not dying it can wait until after the scrimmage.

 The girl with the boy’s name clapped her arm across my shoulder. Too bad about your dad, man. And then quieter, what the fuck is a beignet?


The last night of pre-season, I got a ride from a teammate to my dad’s girlfriend’s house and ventured inside to see my father, his arms mummied in gauze. I sat on the stool beside him and scooted the field hockey stick about the carpet. I poured him a ginger ale into a Snoopy glass and hoped he might ask about my day, so I’d have the opportunity to make something up and make myself believe it. He didn’t.

He sat there, staring at the television, and it was a good long while before I realized he’d dozed off.

I walked outside to wait for my mother.  Dad’s girlfriend came out to stand with me. He’s on a lot of painkillers, she said. The doctor thinks he may still be in shock.

I nodded. I thought about Dad’s apartment I’d never (as it turned out) return to, because he’d move out days later. I thought about fire. I thought I burned every bridge I had in order to get a new life.  I thought what if I was wrong?

Dad’s squeezed my hand, though I’d said nothing, just sullenly gazed at my own shadow against the driveway through clammy late summer mist  in off the lake. I felt guilty for letting her believe my quiet was because I was worried about dad.

You know, I said, I passed out today. At practice. When I woke up, I thought that everything had changed.

 Dad’s girlfriend nodded, and said, that’s you wanted, right? change? but Mom’s headlights flashed against the driveway. I didn’t have a chance to answer. I never told her that I wasn’t sure what was scarier—that idea everything had changed and would continue to change, inexorably, permanently or that maybe nothing ever really would.

I got in the car with Mom. She asked me how my dad was and how my day had been. I said fine. I said long. I said I can’t wait for classes to start.

 And after a second or two, I couldn’t even remember whether I was lying.


[1] I was just about the only kid in my junior high on the Gifted track that wasn’t also in marching band. This confused everyone, but I tried to explain that the only thing worse than wearing a cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and being forced to play sports on a field in inclement weather would be to wear an even uglier, cheap, polyester, sweat-stinking uniform and force-marched around people playing sports on a field in inclement weather while playing “Title theme from ‘Top Gun’ ”  and “God Bless America.”

[2] Field hockey arms teenage girls with blunt sticks and compels them to drive a hard, plastic ball into a goal at the other end of field thick with other teenager girls carrying heavy wooden sticks. Save shin and mouth guards, there’s precious little in the way of protective gear. Injuries get ugly. The coach put me on the field as a sweeper, and that’s the position where I stayed. I told one of my team mates I was afraid of someone hitting my face with a stick. She was like, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Play your cards right and you might be able to score a nose job or get your jaw wired shut. My cousin dropped three dress sizes that way.

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The Wasteland

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

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

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


Remember peak oil?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It was a weird time.

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

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


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

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

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

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

I did.


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

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


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

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

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

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


Remember peak oil?

Remember 2006?

Remember those nights at the bar that went on forever?

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

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


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

Then I packed and flew to Venice.

It was the best day.

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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Home Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] He didn’t

[2] She totally did.

[3] Obvious hyperbole. But barely.

©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.: