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Romance

i.

My dad and I make a lot of scenes in restaurants. It’s sort of our thing. He says something about writing that usually is not really about writing at all. I react with fury. He finds my reaction either funny or ridiculous and, instead of apologizing, goes full David Letterman deadpan until I simmer down or storm out the front door. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to these dinner explosions, though I’ll note that they have a higher than average probability of going down at Italian Restaurants. But that’s probably only because dad and I really like Italian food.

One of these scenes occurred sometime in the fall of 1999. We were in a chatty wine lull between Primi and Secondi Piatti and discussing process. I told Dad about a project I was working on, a project he’d read part of, and, after a bit, he stopped me and asked if he might make an observation.

“You know, buddy,” he said. “It would be really interesting if you ever decided to write something about people in love. It seems like your characters are never in love, not real love, anyway. It’s like they don’t know what it is or how to do it.” He shrugged. “Just something to think about.”

I was twenty-three at the time. I’d never been in love, at least not with anyone who loved me back. I was pretty sure he knew that. I swallowed. Then I emptied my wine glass. I could see he wanted to push on, but I slid my chair back and nodded toward the sidewalk. “I’m stepping out for a cigarette.”

“Go ahead,” he said, “but we’ll continue this conversation when you get back”

Like hell we will, I thought, and nearly cost a waiter his tray of sorbetto as I ran past him toward the door, desperate to escape

ii.

I am almost forty years old. I have still never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.

I like being single. I have friends and family. I have people I care about who care about me. I have a life undefined and unconstrained by romantic relationship. I used to worry being alone, but I’ve come to cherish my solitude and learned how to manage silence, which is never really silent. Not for long, anyway. I captain my own ship. I author my own story. I sprawl across the whole bed. I do not wash anyone else’s socks. I am fine, better than fine, with that.

Still, I’m not a nun. I’m not made of stone. I don’t lack desire. I’m plenty curious. I stare at myself in the mirror and wonder what it would be like to have someone look back at me with ardor, with tenderness. I’ve read a lot of novels and I think I’m pretty observant, but there are questions I don’t have an answer to. What does it really feel like to be in love, I mean, like, really in love? How do you know if someone loves you back? Does it make you feel beautiful? Does it make you feel confident? Does it make you feel secure? Can you get used to their bad table manners and weird taste in books if they love you enough? Do you ever really believe they love you enough? Do you ever quit worrying they’ll stop?

iii.

I think everything I write is a love story. In fact, I worry that I write so much about love, that it’s overwhelming and obsessive and delusional. I worry that in my writing people will see ignorance and unforgivable naiveté. They’ll peer through the spaces in the letters and see me on a Friday night alone on a sofa with a cat and a Netflix queue of BBC dramas about high-cheekboned WASPs doing something scandalous on a rainy moor. And they’ll know. And they’ll feel sorry for me. And they’ll be like, well, duh, have you seen her? That’s not the sort of person anyone could fall in love with.

 iv.

 When I was young, most men I liked did not like me like that. They respected me. They admired me. They thought of me like one of the guys, not like a woman, but more like a gay man. They found me almost attractive. They were  surprisingly close to feeling turned on. They considered me like a sibling, a sister, maybe . They thought they might want to date me if I would lose a little weight, if I had whiter teeth, if I  were more conventionally feminine. They’ve been embarrassed at my affection and ashamed at themselves. Never tell anyone this happened. This was a crazy mistake, right? How hilarious! I guess we can just blame this on the music. You’re a good sport, a real pal, a real first rate chum, Fields.

 Women my age freak out about getting older because they worry about not being noticed. They think it must be a fate worse than death to be invisible to men. And I want to be like You know what: I’m pretty sure it’s not the worst thing the world. You’ll survive. Most of the time you won’t care at all.

 v.

I could lose weight. I could bleach my teeth. I could learn how to apply make up. I could grow out my hair. I could smooth out the lumps and conceal the faults and pluck and shave and tweeze and peel away everything unsightly. I could wear what magazines advise will flatter my curves. I could talk less. I could smile more. I could flutter my eyelashes and toss my hair around and act coy. I could not argue. I could feign ignorance. I could pretend I need saving. I could pretend I need nothing. I could pretend that he’s everything. I could become desirable, or at least as desirable as a forty-year-old woman reasonably could pretend to be. If you’d just lose forty pounds, you’d find love. If you’d just take better care of yourself, the men would notice. If you’d just be more confident. If you’d just be more vulnerable. If you’d just hold back. If you’d just be yourself. If you’d just laugh. If you’d just cry. If you’d just ,just, just, just, just, just, just, just.

 But if that’s the way you make them love you, will they only ever love you when you’re like that? Is the memory of the maiden powerful enough to sustain love when she’s become the crone? At what point can you be step out of the lines and be flawed or fucked up or fat or frumpy or inconvenient? Does that void out love? Does that mean you no longer deserve it? Does that mean you never deserved it at all?

A friend of mine told me she was afraid her husband would leave her if she gained twenty pounds. A friend of mine told me she was afraid her boyfriend would leave her if he found out she used to be fat. A friend of mine told me she only had a few more years to find someone to fall in love with her before she became undesirable, ugly, unlovable, before it was too late for her.

She was twenty-six at the time

vi.

First there were Nerve personals. Then there was Match. Then there was OKCupid. Then I guess there’s Tinder, but I think I’m too old and swiping sounds like something that would get you arrested at Bloomingdales. Online dating, they said. That’s how you’ll find someone. I wrote witty, complicated personal ads for myself. People agreed they were pretty great: You’re not my type at all, but great profile! Wow, you’re such a great writer. I’d love to read more of your stuff. I sent guys stories. They offered flattering critiques of my style, but never wanted to meet for drinks. That was probably okay because when we did meet for drinks I could never be as fluent, as quick, as effortlessly clever as I was in a profile I’d spent a whole day writing or messages I edited sixteen times before replying. I would walk into the bar or into the coffeeshop and could see his disappointment at first glimpse. Sometimes we’d still have good conversations. One guy told me again how much he liked my profile. “You’re really such a great writer. In fact, that’s why I wanted to see you. I mean, you’re way too big for me and too old for me . . .” He was 46. “ . . . but I wondered if you would help me rewrite my profile, you know, to attract the kind of girls I want to attract. Pretty, young girls”

I drank a lot of  expensive Scotch on his tab and later cried about that date, because I thought he’d genuinely liked me. My mother said, You just have to keep putting yourself out there. You have to kiss a lot of frogs. I mean, when I was in college, I went out with a different boy every weekend. But I wasn’t in college. I was 37.

I kept a profile active until a few months ago. I tried to make my virtual self as transparent as possible—full body pictures, no makeup, no bullshit—so no one would be disappointed by reality. I got a lot of atrociously misspelled comments about my boobs and one request to pose naked for a guy who was doing a performance art piece about obese women. I got threatening notes from 70 year old men, who believed that I’d age-discriminated against them in my profile. You’re ageist because you set your upper limit at 50. And I would click through to find, unsurprisingly that he’d set his upper limit at 35. I got called a bitch. I got called a fat bitch.

I deleted my account at Christmas. It felt like a gift.

 

vii.

Part of the problem is I don’t really know how to date. I haven’t done a lot of it. The guys I went out with most recently have all already been married and divorced. They own real estate and have lawyers and stories about their elaborate first weddings (never paying for that bullshit again!) and hoary conflicts with every single one of their always “crazy” ex-wives. They are looking for no-drama, no-fuss stepmother material. Ideally cool with signing a pre-nup. Maybe all right with having another kid. Definitely into pooling retirement savings. Do I have my own health insurance? Would I provide a notarized copy of the medical history? My credit score?

I am so far behind the curve on romance that I’m still looking for mixtapes and slowdances and someone to write song lyrics on the rubber toe of my sneakers. I want a prom date.  I want someone to go with me to see bands play. I want someone to drink coffee and do crosswords on the porch on Sunday mornings and sit around and watch dumb movies on rainy Saturday nights. I want to travel a lot and laugh hysterically and mess around and eat delicious food and mess around some more. I mean, it’s not that I’m against planning for the future. It’s not that I don’t want to be an adult but I still want to have fun in the present, man. Dig?

A friend of mine recently asked me what I was looking for in a long-term relationship. I told her I wanted a hilarious best friend that I could have travel and have sex with. She laughed and told me I was adorable and extremely naïve. I’m still don’t understand why.

 

viii.

I know I’m not alone.

I mean, I am alone, but not alone in my alone-ness. There are plenty of people out there in the world like me. None of us have spouses, or partners, or dates or even dating histories. We’re not all monstrous grotesques and miserable shrews hoarding cats in some dank smelly basement cloister. We don’t cry ourselves to sleep about it every night. We have jobs. We have friends. We have full and interesting lives. We may even look and act and behave just like you.

We don’t discuss our lack-of-love-life much because it’s embarrassing and because no matter what people say, you suspect they’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with you that you’re still alone, that you’ve always been alone. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to hear more Chin up, little camper, you’ll find your person! We don’t want to be set up on a dates with your cousin Ronnie, who is really sweet and kind of dumb, but he’s really sweet! We don’t want to hear how cousin Ronnie finally found the love of his life on eHarmony, have you tried it? We don’t talk about it because the only thing worse than someone saying I can’t believe you’re still single is trying to figure out why they’re not saying it.

xi.

Maybe my standards are too high. But I don’t want to settle, and I sure as shit don’t want you to settle for me. I’m good at being single. I like being single. I’d rather fly solo than be little more than some dude’s safeguard against accidentally choking on a frozen pizza when he’s old and alone in his farty apartment.

I don’t know if I’m a good catch. I’m probably not an easy catch. You have to be pretty smart to get my attention. Also kind and tender and forthright. Even if you’re not a total laff riot, it would certainly help if you can tolerate my sense of humor.   You have to give a shit. You have to be open-minded, willing to compromise and willing to accept me as I am.

It would be a real goddamn bonus if you think the way I am is absolutely brilliant and gorgeous and marvelous (though maybe not all the time or even at the same time).

I’m not great at reading romantic cues, so you’ll need to be pretty upfront and reasonably patient if I sit there staring at you in weird, slack-jawed, uncomprehending shock after you try to make a pass. Be advised that I don’t know what I’m doing. Be advised that I may need to be disarmed. Even though I argue, even though I quip, I have huge heart, a little worse for wear maybe, but still beating and healthy and, I believe, quite capable of exquisite passion and extravagant love.

x.

I’m almost forty years old and I’ve never been in love, at least not with someone who loved me back.

And yeah, Dad, sure. You were totally right about my stories. And sometimes I still hope that one day I’ll be able to write beautifully and honestly about affairs of the heart.

That kind of love might never happen for me. I’m cool with that. My life is full of riches and wonders and I’m grateful for it. There’s a whole world, worlds upon worlds and  worlds inside of worlds for me to explore, with or without a partner.  I’m pretty sure I can find something more to write about than just romance.

 

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Grown-Ups

I.

One September day, about a month into my sophomore year, my roommate became suddenly, terribly convinced that she was going to die. Her reasons for believing this were both very personal and totally illogical. She spent several weeks sitting in our otherwise airy apartment withthe blinds drawn, drinking cheap Chianti out of the bottle and wearing an ancient rusty red taffeta dressing gown I’d found in the bottom of a bin at a filthy Salvation Army in old money Virginia. It was festooned with dejected ruffles and printed with diseased-looking roses in grisly shades of red. black and jaundiced gold, which more or less matched her hair after a failed experiment in home bleaching required an iffy black dye job. The time we spent together mostly consisted of me listening to her make mixtapes as she imagined grimly humorous conversations between exes at her funeral.  Sometimes I would ride with her over to the closest cemetery. Hope Sandoval warbled about turning into dust through tinny Hyundai speakers. My roommate would park in the grass and wander between broken statuary and Gilded Age mausoleums. “Don’t you ever think about dying?” she’d ask.

“Sure,” I’d say. I suffered no illusions about my mortality. I would kind of just stand there looking at her, half-entranced, half-annoyed, as she posed dramatically by a broken cherub on a sunny, 80 degree late summer afternoon, framed by the undistinguished skyline of the shitty, third-tier New South city to which we’d reluctantly relocated. Death would certainly come to all of us. Such was the human condition. Unfortunately for the two of us, death would not come before the phone bill was due.

We owed $400. Millennials will wonder —How do you get a $400 phone bill? Were you guys, like, regularly calling Japan or what? We weren’t, but such was the state of things pre-unlimited calling, pre-calling plan, pre-10 cents a minute, prep- 25cents a minute. We’re talking about a landline  connected to pushbutton phone with an extra long curling cord that we kept on a rickety, band-stickered, secondhand  tv-tray in the hallway. I’d covered the receiver in checkerboard contact paper one night early on in our tenancy because I wanted to listen to The Specials and my yet-to-turn morbid roommate and her Subhumans-fan boyfriend were on a three day bender of obscure Canadian hardcore. She’d called him a lot–probably 75$ a lot, if you’re doing the math.

I certainly wasn’t. We’d given our first phone bill a sort of cursory looksee, then paled and slid it under a stack of newsprint magazines in the living room so a follow-up consult would both literally and figuratively get our hands dirty. It was a clever conceit that would prove disastrous, as we promptly forgot it was there and spent our bill money on important things like records, hair dye, cigarettes and takeout curry. When the next bill came, we were distressed to find it included the past-due first bill as well as a vexing late fee. I put it with the other phone bill, out of sight, out of mind, under the MaximumRockNRoll.

My roommate had taken the previous year off between high school and college. She’d rented an apartment and worked two different mall jobs in order to support herself and the criminal she’d been dating at the time. That gave her a slight advantage in worldliness.  I had not paid a bill before we moved into our apartment. I’d spent my freshman year at a Womens’ College, where, if you put off paying your phone bill for long enough, they’d just  bill it to your Dad. I didn’t really know what would happen if we didn’t pay the bill. I suspected the phone company might take punitive action. But what sort of action? Would they send out goons? Would they send the police? Would they send us to debtor’s prison? Do they still have debtor’s prisons?

“They’ll turn off the phone,” she said.

“Astonishing,” I said. It seemed so simple, yet so mericiless. “And will they let us turn it back on again?”

“If we pay the balance and a reconnect fee, probably.” She stood back to admire a couple of black and white Margaret Keane knock-offs she’d found a thrift store and hung on the wall over her bed. “When I die, I’ll make sure you get some of my stuff.”

I looked around her room. Morbidity had crept into the decor. Can you just become Goth? Is that a thing that can happen to people?  She didn’t have that much I wanted in the way of tangible objects, save a couple of 7”s and some Russian novels. It was her sharp-angled, seemingly impervious cool that I coveted. I tried to communicate that, in the least-poser way possible, hoping she might cue me into some ritual, some album, some ur-text to guarantee that I would emerge out the other side impossibly tough and edgy and completely out of fucks to give.

She either completely missed my point or understood me better than I understood myself. “You should read up on eastern religion,” she said, and pulled a paperback Bhagavad-Gita off the shelf. “Maybe start here.”

I tried to hide my disappointment–I’d hoped at least she might hand over something political, like “The Communist Manifesto” or a book with small print and  Revolution in the title– as she fetched the phone from the hallway. When I drifted off to sleep a couple hours later, trying to figure out what exactly Lord Krishna had to do with being more  punk rock, I could hear her through the wall, still talking on the phone.

The next day, the power was cut off.

II.

I took a job as a tea girl for an English furniture importer at the fall 1995 iteration of the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point. I didn’t apply for the job. It came to me because 1) the importer had a business relationship with my grandmother  2) one of the vendors[1] was family friend and 3) there were evidently no English girls with the necessary visas and travel time to do the job.  As it happened, I was a reasonable candidate. Not only had I a weirdly extensive knowledge about high-end British home furnishings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (Thanks, Nana!), I suffered an incurable case of hopeless Anglophilia, probably attributable te to both genetics and environment. It had plagued me throughout my childhood, a condition both consuming and isolating.  I would have just withered and died from embarrassment had anyone suggested I suffered from it, even as I obsessively familiarised (<—–see what I did there?) myself with parliamentary government and the  various regional dialects of the United Kingdom.  I could make a decent pot of tea and I had at least one Laura Ashley-ish floral frock left over my Desperate To Be Pre-Raphaelite,  Let’s Talk About Shakespeare and Aesthetics Some More high school days, which at the time already seemed like ancient history, but was really just  eighteen months previous.

The job was temporary and required a full half-mixtape commute, but you are in no position to turn down any job right now, Alison. My parents were wholly unsympathetic to my rapid descent into dire poverty. My mother believed I was asking for trouble living in an apartment two-and-a-half miles off campus near no other students or people my age.[2]  My father believed not having money would make me a better person,[3] or something to that effect. I believed I would soon have to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as cribsheet for some seriously hard choices. At least two of us were probably onto something.

Whatever the case, I needed the money. The day of my first shift I’d come home between class and teatime to exchange my ripped fishnets for pastel florals and discovered that none of the lights were working. Puzzled, I scrubbed off eyeliner in the dim light of the bathroom and left a Yo, Something is definitely up with the power. Feelings? Thoughts? Inspirational Quotes? Heart, Moi taped to the wall over the phone. When I arrived home several hours later, brimming with hilarious tales of European Interior Decorators getting into fistfights with redneck locals over stolen hood ornaments.[4] I found the apartment pitch dark save a shard of yellow light from the cracked bathroom door. My roommate perched on the edge of the old porcelain tub, hair wrapped in plastic and stinking of ammonia. She fixed me with a hard, level gaze that would have silently communicated you owe me a hundred dollars for the power bill, you frivolous, irresponsible asshole even if she hadn’t said it. “I’m going to get a job tomorrow,” she said. “You should get one too. I don’t want to have to bail us out again.”

I thought about protesting. I have a job. I have a job that pays me $7.50 an hour. That is $3 more than minimum wage, comrade. But it was only ten days of three hour shifts behind an ersatz Victorian canopy bar. My sole responsibility consisted of setting out plates of snacks and watching the mostly American representatives of chain furniture stores try to figure out what to do with Devonshire cream–What the hell is this? Mayonnaise?–while the superficially gracious British staff snerked at them in the most subtle and devastating way possible. So calm. So cool.  I wished I could do that. I could spend a whole shift trying to stiffen my upper lip and raise one eyebrow in sublimely haughty, amused toleration but I’d still look like I’d been cruelly insulted by a spiteful kitten. It hardly seemed fair. And here I found myself standing in a dark hallway with my pockets full of day-old scones, turning myself in knots to keep from freaking out and telling my enviably taciturn roommate I think I’ve made a terrible mistake coming here. I think you hate me. Do you hate me? I kind of hate me. Do you want to drop out of school and move to New York? How about drop out of school and run away to California? I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary because that life holds a glimmer of something that might be more worthwhile than whatever the fuck we’re doing here? What are we doing here?

I didn’t say that. Instead I handed her the twenty-one dollars in cash I had on me and upended my bag to count out another four in silver change. I added a plastic baggie of leftover Digestives I’d liberated from the tearoom kitchen and attempted a weak smile. “I’ll get another job. I swear.”

She stood and gave me a weary sigh as dismissal. I wondered if I should return her copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, but I heard Nick Cave crooning from the living room and knew she was busy planning her funeral again.

 III.

We both got jobs

My roommate cut class the next day and returned after lunch with a an unimpeachably cool, nearly-impossible-to-get job at a record store. “How do you just go get a job in a record store?”

“I dunno.” She shrugged and lit a cigarette. “You know. They just gave it to me.”

I sat beside her on the fire escape in gobsmacked awe until she asked how I got my job. “What are you doing again? Like, babysitting?”

The blonde suburban mother who hired me preferred the term nanny, as had my own mother. As if just calling the college student you pay to drive your overachieving progeny to all of their extracurriculars a “nanny” would magically imbue her with some Mary Poppinsity and an encyclopedic knowledge of both the Ivy League admission process and Emily Post. I found the listing in one of those Giant Binders in the campus Career Services. It was, if I’m honest, the tenth job I applied for (after a rogue’s gallery of depressing retail and no-dignity food service) and I wouldn’t have applied for it at all, but for the fact that the kids were 10 and 13, well past the age of needing any sort of “care.”

The mother herself said the same thing in the interview. They’d go to their rooms and do their homework when they weren’t at soccer or whatever. She didn’t imagine it would be too difficult. I agreed. She was an evangelical Christian and a republican, who lived in an ugly McMansion and worried that her daughter was going to hell because she was growing boobs. She didn’t like  the color of my hair or the fact that I wouldn’t tell her what church I went to. But she she offered me the job, probably because I was white and had an easily pronounceable last name and a diploma from a prep school and didn’t really look like an anarchist or a drug addict (despite my best efforts). Also (and unlike her ungrateful ex-housekeeper Gloria)  because I agreed not to demand extra gas money on top of the flat weekly fee she’d pay under the table.

“It’s a job,” I said. Because it was. I’d resigned myself to it as soon as I realized that neither the coffee shop nor the frozen yogurt place were likely to call me back.

“Nannying,” she said. “So lame.”

The way she said it felt like she was talking about me. I was lame. If I were really cool, I would definitely be doing something gritty and dangerous, probably involving manual labor and traditionally gendered male. Or else I would be able to get a cool  job at the record store or at Kinkos or that place where they sold raver pants and Manic Panic. Nannying was so bourgeoise.  One of the first steps in rebellion, my roommate had told me earlier in the fall, is to rebel against your social class.  I had taken that that to heart and tried to join to Communist Party. And let me tell you, that was easier said than done in the Piedmont Triad in 1995. I sent off for newsletters and badges and tried to work dialectics into ordinary conversation with the people on the front porch at house shows or the woman at the Quik Mart who sold me cigarettes. My roommate had been thoroughly unimpressed

She leaned back in her perch on the metal railing and sent a shower of smoldering ash into the parking lot. The robe fluttered out behind her like a cape. If I sat like that, I’d be afraid of falling. She looked too poised to be truly reckless, although given the recent conversation, I decided to crack wise about potential suicide just in case.

“Throw myself off a fire escape?” She laughed. “Please. Credit me with more imagination than that.”

IV

The tearoom was closed on Sundays. I slept until noon and waded through a flood of clothes and books and half written journals to make coffee. My roommate had already been up for a couple of hours–maybe she hadn’t been asleep at all She sat on a tall stool in front of the stereo, her thin, pale legs swinging, as she made another mix-tape.

“This one really reflects the darkness of my soul,” she said, joking but not joking. I sat for a while, smoking and writing in a notebook, listening to her relentless, furious, angular songs. I wanted to be like the music, all fierce angles and hard edges. I wanted to make people uncomfortable, not in a desperate and eager sort of way, but in an inciting riots kind of way.  I wrote a list of adjectives I wished would describe my personality and realized at least half were synonyms for skinny. How on Earth could I be edgy if I was entirely made out of curves? That is a good question, I thought. I underlined it twice in my journal. Sometimes I just wish I were a boy, I wrote, then crossed out boy and wrote man. I felt revulsion and increasing horror-Ew. Seriously? — at having even thought it and blacked it out.

After a while, my roommate got frustrated with the tape making and stormed off to her room. I took that as a sign that I should be working on something important and tapped out two more pages in my terrible  work-in progress.  The sun started to blind me through the windows on either side of the desk and I realized it was late, almost time to dig through the cabinet for whatever off-brand, boxed pasta meal our trendy vegetarianism and reduced financial circumstances would allow for dinner. I hadn’t heard a peep from my roommate’s room for something like hours. As I was trying to think of a good excuse to barge in– hiya, pal, just making sure you’re not dead–she burst through the bathroom door, wearing a stained old t-shirt and ancient blue pajama pants. “So I just did this,” she said.

For a moment I thought she meant taking off the dressing gown, because she had. That signified something. An embrace of life? A less fraught understanding of her own mortality? Whatever. It seemed worth celebrating. I didn’t have enough money left for anything fancy, but I might be able to scrounge some change for samosas and we could take a long, scenic smoking drive down past the abandoned mansions on the street where the murders happened. Fun. She cleared her throat and pointed at her bottom lip, which had a safety pin through it. I blinked.

“Wow,” I said. “Did that hurt?”

“Of course,” she said.

I bit my own lip. Yes, it would hurt.

“Any particular reason?” I asked.

“Bored,” she said. “Wanted to feel something.”

I marveled at that. I was damn near overwhelmed by feelings all the time. It was exhausting.  Not feeling things? That seemed like a pretty sweet deal. So tough. No wonder they hired her at the record store.  I sighed, trying to appear as indifferent as possible. “Are you worried about infection?

Her expression was ruthless, practically mythological. Like another ten seconds and I would have been forever transformed into a frowsy marble bust.

“You know,” she said, slowly. “ I would have paid someone to do it. But that costs money. And I spent all of my money on the power bill.”

Noted.

I waited until she was gone to walk over to my mirror. I dunked a safety pin in a bottle of rubbing alcohol and tested the sharp end against my right nostril. I looked at my unkempt purple hair, my fat belly, my ill-fitting thrift store pants and Am I really dumb enough to do this? I  made a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT.  I’ve read Ulysses and I mostly understood it. I know just enough psychology to be boring at a party and this is just about the stupidest thing I could ever do for the stupidest reasons and if I really want a nose ring, I can be grown-up about it and pay someone to do it maybe after I pay my roommate back for the rest of the power bill and then I’ll

I screamed.

Or I would have screamed if I weren’t biting my f t-shirt. I stared at myself in the mirror, half-amazed, half-horrified. Please God, please don’t let my nose fall off, it is one of my only decent features. I wiped away residual tears and swaggered into my roommate’s room. She looked up from her book as I entered.

“I did this,” I said, pointing at my nose and the safety pin through it.

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

V.

I had to take my nose ring out for both of my jobs the next day. This was not recommended by professionals, but if my nose was going to become diseased and fall off, it would do so with or  without professional advice.

My mother drove to town to meet my grandmother for furniture market. She stayed in a hotel just down the street and took me out to dinner at a restaurant with actual, non-plastic cutlery.  She asked me about school, which I hated and wasn’t going to and my apartment, which I loved but couldn’t afford and my friends, who were, save my roommate, all seemingly content and happy in other area codes. I don’t remember what I exactly I told her, but it wasn’t the truth.  I would have died before I said:  It’s possible that I’m profoundly depressed. I think this place is making me worse. So, let’s cut our losses with minimal fanfare. I’ll move home and we can reassess college next semester. That sound reasonable?

Sometime in the early morning, the people at Bellsouth were like, “Oh, right! Chekhov’s phone bill!” and turned off our service. My mother came by on her way out of town to suss out why we weren’t answering her calls and found a short stack of ink smudged documents on the coffee table and my roommate and I bickering over who called Brooklyn on August 29th for 17 minutes (I still contend it was her).

Mom took stock of the situation, probably died a little on the inside at the sight of our filthy apartment, our terrible hair, our collective, palpable misery that had mixed with the permanent haze of cigarette smoke and coalesced into what my then-journal would have described as a fetid miasma of fatal ennui or something to that effect. She offered to spot me some cash.

Our bailout was conditional upon our compulsory attendance at the lengthy, emphatic lecture on immaturity and  personal responsibility she would deliver over the next ninety minutes or so. I believe it concluded with a rousing call to “Get your shit together” and then took me to the bank so my roommate and I could drive to the seedy Western Union/Payday Lending joint  that also served as a utility payment one-stop. I thought to myself, Look at all these sad people. I‘m sure I will never need to come here again. Hoo boy,  I’ve definitely learned my lesson.

I was, of course wrong.

VI.

On my last day in the tearoom, Donna Summer dropped by with a fleet of interior decorators and the English Furniture Importer himself. They hummed around her, all frantic smiles and ingratiating chatter. She was amiable and quiet. She smiled at me when I poured her tea, thanked me for the scones and seemed like a genuinely nice lady.

I got a bonus when I left . It was maybe $70 bucks, but for me, at the time, it felt like a fortune. I filled up my tank, bought a pack of cigarettes and took off driving. Who knew where I would stop? I made Durham by nightfall and then headed North on I-85. I did mileage math in my head. I could be in DC by 11. New York by 4 or 5 if the traffic held up. I’d never driven in New York. I’d never parked a car in New York. I shuddered and realized I was still wearing my floral dress. That was unacceptable. I turned the car around at the Virginia line and drove back to Greensboro.

My roommate was watching a vampire film  when  I came in under the dining room arch. “The fuck have you been?”

“Took a drive.” I slid onto the disgusting loveseat. The pages of the phone bill were still strewn across the table. I should really pick those up, but I didn’t.

I risked a glimpse at my roommate. She was eating macaroni and cheese out of a black coffee mug and wearing jeans, not the robe.  When we’d moved in together, I thought she was my best friend, maybe the best of best friends I’d ever had.  I wanted to be with her to be like her. I thought together we could change the world or make great art or at least make ourselves happy.  She’d sent me this letter (one of many) the year before when I was marooned in Virginia. “I have no idea why we still live in the South. We are too fabulous, too brilliant for it and it’s complete bullshit. Let’s renew our spirituality walking down filthy New York sidewalks soaking in this glorious paradox of life. Let’s blind all the fuckers with our sheer magnificence.” This hadn’t panned out. It wouldn’t pan out at all, actually, but I still swooned for her in this  “Anne of Green Gables” bosom friend sort of way, because she had written that to me and she could write that to me. I loved her, even then, even though I knew she didn’t love me, even though she would be repulsed if I said it and maybe horrified if she knew.

“I’m really sorry about the power bill,” I said.

She tapped the coffee table with the toe of her boot.  “I think the phone bill makes us even”–and went back to the fangs.

After a minute, I turned again. “If things have been weird or bad, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.”

She looked at me. Her eyes were a pale silvery blue, but in the dim living room, they looked darker and full of something I desperately wanted to believe would accept and forgive me. She shook her head. She seemed disappointed. “You’re always sorry, you know that?”

I did. And I really was.

)

 

[1] He would report years later, in an embarrassing anecdote told to great general amusement at a fancy hotel in Brighton, that I showed up on that first day with a hangover, in Dr. Martens and leather jacket, with wild purple hair and giant sunglasses. That’s probably mostly true.  My hair was sort of purple and I probably did wear boots under my pastel floral gowns (they were both more comfortable and more respectable than my brokedown mary janes). And I did love that leather jacket.  But I rarely drank in those days (I was nineteen, with no ID, no older friends and no money).

[2] She was right

[3] He was wrong

[4] True!

 

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Hard Knock Life

The day I was cast as an understudy  my not-even-remotely-a-stage-mother mother tried to talk me out of doing the show. You’ll have way more work to do than anyone else and there’s only the smallest chance that you’ll ever get to perform. I refused to let her rain on my parade. I’d managed to eclipse the bajillion scrawny fifth graders with their pitchy renditions of “The Way We Were” with my jazzed up performance of the infinitely-more-awkward-than-I-realized-at-the-time “Darktown Strutters Ball.”* Sure, it was a bummer that my dentist’s daughter got the title role, but hey, she had red hair. And I was all the girls’ understudy. That was like nine parts. That was like the biggest part of all!

My mother was skeptical. I just want you to really think about it. You know, it’s easier to walk away now than quit once you’re in there.

But I had no time for this kind of sane, compassionate logic, especially when it stood in the way of my obvious and imminent fame. I was ten. I had graduated from afterschool children’s theater to the big time—Community Theater. It was all part of a journey. A journey that started with the “Camelot” soundtrack and “Fame” reruns. A journey that would really take flight after my last ballet recital, an historic event at which I threw off the shackles of classical choreography and executed my best “Flashdance” to the Prelude from “Carmen,” while my classmates pliéd earnestly in their lacy mantillas and gipsy-themed tutus. My teacher pulled my mother aside afterwards and informed her I would be less-than-welcome to continue my study of ballet with her, but I clearly had an aptitude for drama. Alison might enjoy acting, she’d said. And here I was, one step closer Broadway . . . or, more accurately, about a block and a half off the street called Broadway in my hometown.

I made my grand entrance on the first night of rehearsals through a stage door with plenty of theatrical flair and jogged up the stairs to find a cast that didn’t really know what to do with me. I did what Annie did during readings. I stood on stage with the other orphans, learning their steps, never really being allowed to participate. To the adults in the cast, I was underfoot. To the other orphans, I was an interloper, not really one of them. This is for orphans only, not understudies, said the pageant orphan as she led the others in a chant about jellicle cats in the green room. Pageant oprhan told the other girls they wouldn’t understand, they couldn’t understand drama until they saw “Cats” on Broadway, On Broadway!

“I went for my tenth birthday. My parents understand that if you’re going to be a real actress you have to see real theater. “ Pageant orphan waved her hands around. “Not this amateur crap.”

Her acolytes nodded in agreement.

I cleared my throat. “My parents** feel the same way. That’s why they took me to London to see ‘Cats.’ I saw all the important plays with the all the real serious stars.” I tried to remember a single play other than “Cats,” but stalled. “I saw the Queen Elizabeth musical. It’s amazing. It’s going to win all the awards.”

“You’re lying,” she said.

Of course I was. I’d never been to London. I’d never even been to New York. I didn’t know what the fuck a jellicle cat was.*** And the Elizabeth musical? Well, it was more of a work in progress. I’d written one song about Divine Right that sounded sort of like “Material Girl.” I hummed a few bars.

“That sounds like ‘Material Girl’.” Pageant orphan gave me the sort of long, narrow, nostril-fluttering Begone Peasant! sniff I felt totally undermined her credibility as a Depression-era orphan, but clearly no one asked me to weigh in on casting choices. “I’m going to find out if you’re lying, liar”

I shrugged. I didn’t care. I slumped away to the basement where I sat in a prop throne and thought about how “Elizabeth!” would be a huge hit. I pictured my name on a playbill. I imagined winning a Tony. To all the Bitchy Orphans in the Community Theater production of “Annie”: This is what real talent looks like, losers.

I tried to talk to Annie about it. As I was her shadow, we spent lots of time together and I’d known her since preschool. Do you think some of the orphans are assholes? Do you notice that everyone is mean to me? Would you be interested in getting on the ground floor with my exciting new musical about Queen Elizabeth I? I think you’d be a really interesting choice for the lead, seeing as you’re a natural redhead. But Annie was very serious about being Annie and already very serious about her career. She didn’t have time for my shit.

After two weeks, I’d managed to befriend one orphan, a freckled eleven-year-old, who rasped like a pre-adolescent Kathleen Turner and projected an enviably adult level of blasé world-weariness. She would join me in the basement during our off hours and we’d poke around in costume and prop storage until we were yelled at by the stage crew or scared off by giant spider crickets. Freckles lived on the other side of town went to the Catholic School where I knew virtually no one, so I auditioned another round of bullshit on her.

Lying, I discovered, was a lot like acting, but you got to write your own script. In those days, my fabrications tended toward little kid wish fulfillment I have a secret uncle in England and he’s a Duke and one day when he dies, I’ll inherit his castles and I’ll sleep on a giant lily pad in an enormous indoor pond in the golden-domed  grand ballroom or the more prosaic status-y stuff I have three lavender-dyed rabbit fur jackets and the fancy kind of Casio keyboard like Howard Jones and sixteen Swatches basically my whole wardrobe is Esprit or the frankly bizarre My parents have this giant all-white music room and in it is a shiny white grand piano**** that I play because I’m a total prodigy. My piano teacher says I’ll probably end up at Julliard, but I’m like, yeah, Ms. Adair, sorry, I’m An Actress.” Freckles didn’t ever try to call me out. She just sort gave me this wry you poor, dumb bastard smile and went about her business

Eventually I ended up hanging out in the costume shop, because I found rooms with a surplus of tulle crinolines friendly and extremely calming. The costumer chatted at me as she made orphan dresses, including one for me to wear, should the others fall ill.

“You’re bigger than the other girls,” said the costumer, which was both true and a friendlier version of pageant orphan’s No one would ever believe you’re an orphan because orphans aren’t fat. “What size do you wear again?”

I considered the withering shame I felt over the tag in my jeans and then gave her an imaginative  number.

“Are you sure?” she asked, after I’d stated a size small enough to qualify as delusional

I feigned annoyance instead of hurt. “Of course, I’m sure. Are you calling me a liar?”

The director gave me a walk-on chorus part in one song, a big number about New York City, my spiritual home. The costume shop had neither a dress in stock nor time to make a costume for a walk-on. Thus, an inexpensive black party dress party dress was procured from the outlet mall. I looked exactly like the kind of thing I’d wear to a church in Asheville in 1986.

“Is this the sort of things girls would wear in New York in the 30s?” I asked the costumer at the fitting.

“I don’t think the audience will pay that much attention. You’re only on stage for a minute.” She tugged at the back of the dress. “This is way too small for you. I don’t think you told me the right size.”

I didn’t say anything. I just stood there listening to the orphans giggling on the other side of the rack as she sighed, frustrated, and muttered about the need for elastic panels and Velcro.

The show ran for three weeks. Annie and two of the orphans went on stage sick, despite high fevers and chills. I never got to duet with FDR***** or be fully dressed without a smile. I made it out for thirty-seconds of grapevine and curtain call per show. I was listed in the program as Chorus/Understudy.

On closing weekend, several teachers and a bunch of students from my elementary school came to a Saturday show. I spent that performance pretending to forget that Annie was a classmate and believing that all of those people were just there to see me. Afterwards, I stood in the lobby watching swarms around the orphans, around Annie, and I realized that it’s possible to be on stage in all the bright light, in front of all the people, even people that know you, and still feel absolutely invisible.

My mother let me go out with the cast on the night of the last performance. I rode with Miss Hannigan, and we went to what could best be described as the local version of a Bennigans/ O’Charley’s before they literally opened an O’Charley’s in the same parking lot a few years later. I was one of the only kids whose parents allowed her to go along that night. I sat at a long table in the bar with the grown-up and ate mozzarella sticks while they liberally quaffed from plastic pitchers of cheap beer and told the fantastical, self-aggrandizing tales that actors do, even when they are just small town amateur actors at a small town Community Theater. Wherever they were, I was right there with them. That suburban strip center bar might just as well have been Sardis and I a rising  inguenue and our show a masterpiece.

They were nice to me, those older actors, nice and funny and tripping over their words in an effort to stay appropriate It’s fucking hard—sorry—it’s hard work to be a fucking—sorry—it’s hard work to be a—what the hell—it’s hard work to be a fucking understudy.

I blew bubbles into my Coke and smiled, gratified, feeling finally at home among these weird old people with their red noses and boring day jobs.

A waitress came by to see if we wanted refills. “What are you guys?” she asked. “Some kind of church group?”

“We were in a play,” said one of them ” ‘Annie’ at the community theater.”

“Oh I love that movie.” She smiled down at me. “And were you the star, young lady?”

I looked down at the table to see if any orphans were around. “Yes,” I said. “ Yes, I was.”

I think it t was a good lie.

At the very least, just that once, no one corrected me.

 

*I learned it from my preschool teacher and my parents were jazz fans.

** I would go to Broadway with my parents the following spring. To my great displeasure, they did not score “Cats” tickets, due to expense, timing and/or their disinterest in the material (my parents’ favorite musical was “Company”). We ended up seeing “Big River,” a down-home, y’all-ish Twain adaptation of full of New Yorkers pretending to be rednecks that twanged their way through ersatz bluegrass foot-stompers. I was a self-loathing southerner from birth, convinced that my greatest misfortune was having been born in East Tennessee and brought up in Appalachia. I could not have been more disappointed when I realized I’d come all the way to Manhattan to see people in overalls fail to enunciate their long-I’s” This is exactly like all the bullshit I hate back home, I said, though probably not in those terms exactly because I was eleven. I sobbed at intermissions and asked Mom why we couldn’t have seen anything else, seriously anything, even “Starlight Express.” My parents were tolerant, even sympathetic, to my brattiness. We’d spent the run-up to curtain sitting in the Algonquin lobby, where I’d had Shirley Temple and Dad had a martini and talked about Dorothy Parker and Elaine Stritch. They hadn’t enjoyed the show much either. “We probably just should have taken her to something classic. Something with sequins and tapdancing.  Like 42nd Street,” said my mother, afterwards, on the way back to the hotel. “Or maybe we should have just seen the Rockettes and gone to Sardi’s.”Or maybe just “Cats,” I thought, as I gazed wistfully at the Winter Garden Theater through the cab window. Those giant green eyes promised answers to all of my deepest questions: Would middle school suck? Would I get a Nintendo ? Would I become a Broadway star? What the fuck is a jellicle cat?

***I would, actually go to London with my grandparents about two years later. I would, in fact, see “Cats.”  I still don’t know what a jellicle cat is.

****This probably had something to do with watching “Imagine” video on VH-1.

*****People don’t realize this, but being a kind in  the stage version of “Annie” can be very helpful years later when studying for the US History AP. Roosevelt’s cabinet? Still got it.

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The Blizzard of 93

Boarding school students don’t get snow days, per se. At my high school, the day students had an option to call in once the roads got bad enough, but classes were never  canceled, unless the Headmaster announced a holiday. If I’d been an overachiever, I might have reckoned these self-determined snowdays a source of anxiety. As it was, I basically looked at them as administrative license to skip school.

When the Blizzard of 93 came through, I was already on spring break, so I didn’t even have anything to miss. I felt like this was really unfair and it probably exacerbated a bad mood  caused by being (in no particular order) 1) seventeen 2) stuck at my father’s house and thus 3) sharing a bedroom with my eleven year old sister  while 4) increasingly running out of food.

This latter point was a serious issue. Food on Dad’s custodial weekends was a dicey proposition in the best of times. He was famously hopeless in the kitchen. We would make a desultory run to whatever grocery offered  the most extensive prepared foods department, stock up on yogurt, bagels and novelty sodas and then basically eat out the rest of the time. Left to his own devices, my father would have survived on what he calls “orangies.” ginger ale and the occasional takeout Greek salad that he would eat approximately 75% of. The rest he would stow in the refrigerator, along with hard-to-identify ex-vegetables and unopened, yet rendered unopenable dairy products  as part of what looked increasingly like a long-term, biological research project.

We hadn’t anticipated the Blizzard and had, thus, made no effort to load up on frozen pizzas or boxes of macaroni and cheese. By sixteen, I could cook a handful of things, but Dad had no raw ingredients and even if he had, I wouldn’t have volunteered. I’d recently come to the satisfying conclusion that obligatory cooking for men was for chumps and/or  slaves to the patriarchy. I was determined to be neither. I would, and in fact did, eat plates of Dad’s rubbery spaghetti clumps (which managed to be,  at once, over and undercooked) before I’d so much as boil a kettle for him.  It was, I believed,  a point of righteous principle.

By Day Two of the Blizzard, we’d consumed most of what was most obviously edible–rye toast, stale water crackers, canned clam chowder, what looked like maybe Gruyere. I re-read The Secret History for maybe the third time since I’d gotten it for Christmas and stared balefully out the window. My sister called my mother on the hour to remind her that our time with Dad was legally done and it was time for her to pick us up. We needed to go home, to her house,  where we had things like sandwiches and a video library containing more than Dad’s old tv commercials and a copy of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Mom would respond sympathetically and promise to come fetch us as soon as the roads were passable and the power had been restored at her house. “You girls are lucky to have power,” she said. “Most everybody else is sitting around in the dark.

I thought the dark might be preferable to another go at Roger Rabbit. I was out of batteries for my walkman which meant I could listen to neither Cocteau Twins nor “Your Arsenal” and we’d exhausted the  meager, pre-internet entertainments of Dad’s apt-to-crash Macintosh. At some point Dad had directed us to go outside and do something. But we hadn’t thought to pack   snow clothes and neither of us  were really outdoorsy people in the best of circumstances. So we sort of bundled up in his 70s era ski gear and wore socks as mittens and  walked about three feet away from the front door into approximately two feet of snow and stood there, forlorn and befuddled, until a girl I’d gone to public school with came happily stomping down the street. She was naturally blonde and effortlessly popular and had an attractive snow outfit. I was none of those things and was wearing an ancient blue and orange parka with Nixon-era ski tags still attached to the zippers. She was also Jehovah’s Witness, which I knew meant she never had to pledge allegiance and had weird ideas about watchtowers and birthday parties. I didn’t know if discussion of snow days fell under the  latter proscription. I decided not to risk it. And  so we were left with a literally  frigid exchange of “How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Cool.” “Awesome.”  After an extended period of stultifying pleasantries, my sister and I went back inside, where I hoped I’d discover we’d managed to pass hours but, in fact, the whole hoary outside incident had lasted about seven minutes.

Dad volunteered to make dinner. This consisted of the crunchy, gelatinous  spaghetti noodles, the contents of a rusty container of so-called “Red Clam Sauce”(provenance unknown) and a “salad” comprised of Spanish olives, water chestnuts, artichoke hearts  and baby corns.

“Antipasti!” said Dad, when he put down the plates. He’d lit candles and turned on  “Sketches of Spain” to improve the ambiance and perhaps distract from the contents of the plates.Regardless,  sister took one look and started crying. I put on a dress and  did my best to enjoy the experience because Dad let me have a small glass of vinegar-y Red Wine (provenance unknown–could have actually been vinegar).

I knew Day Three would be ugly from the moment my sister  discovered a long-forgotten can of Pepperidge Farms Vichyssoise behind several years of New Yorkers and a box of Lemon Chamomile Tea in Dad’s uppermost cabinet. I think I tried to convince her it was mine, then attempted negotiations, before she looked at me with the hunger-ravaged face of a picky eater forced to survive for more than 72 hours on little more than granite-hard Scandinavian granola and Black Cherry New York Seltzer. She would not surrender. And I refused to back down.

The fight lasted maybe five minutes total, but was famous for its intensity. My sister tended to go hard and quiet and cruel when angry. She could maintain a steady fury for days, if not weeks, at a time.  I was –okay, I am– a slow build, but when I do go off, it tends toward blinding, thunderous, Incredible Hulk-style rage, which lasts for approximately 10-90 humiliating seconds, after which I generally cry, apologize and want to take the person I was screaming at out for ice cream or wine. Given that,  I don’t remember how the Vichyssoise argument played out, but I do remember at some point, I was standing barefoot in my pajamas in a snow drift on Dad’s back porch, howling “Fuck You. Fuck You. Fuck You. I Fucking Hate You!” at the boring, hungry and pallid March sky.

By the time I came back inside to restore circulation to my frozen toes, my sister was back on the phone with my mother. She was whispering and giving me a species of furtive glance I took as sign that she and Mom were discussing how fast they could commit me. I apologized (natch) and Sara ate the vichyssoise. She was, after all, my little sister.

Sometime later that day, my mother finally came to get us. I think we sobbed with relief, when we saw her car round the corner onto Dad’s street. It’s possible Dad did too.

We’d be stuck for several more days once at Mom’s house, but it was a productive, happy stuck–with Sassy Magazine and mixtapes and a giant snow bear my mother and sister built in the front yard. By the time they called me out to see it, to pose in front for a photo, I figured the travails of Dad’s house had ended. Things were (more or less) back to normal.

Mom walked out to take the picture.

My sister flashed me a look I knew to be I’m so not over the vichyssoise thing.

I tried to give her a look that said What the fuck was in the clam sauce anyway?

She smiled and flashed a peace sign.

I tugged at my shirt.

Click.

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At Twelve

Being 12 is pretty much the worst. It’s definitely worse than 11, probably worse than 14 and even marginally worse than 23. It’s hard for me to imagine anything as miserable 12, except for 13 (or maybe smallpox), and trying to reckon the actual true nadir is roughly equivalent to trying to figure out whether you’d prefer questioning at the Witch Trials or the Inquisition. I tend to think, even if thirteen is actually worse, you, at least/by then, have a sense of what’s coming. Nobody expects 12, or for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition.

My dad tried to warn me. He left a letter tucked into whatever Gothic novel I was reading a few weeks before my birthday. It kicked off as follows:

“Dear Alison,

Being 12 is not the greatest fun you’ll have in your whole life. On the other hand, you’ll learn some things being 12 that will be real important to you when you’re 22, 32, and 42.”

He went on to explain  in lines like: “Being 12 means you’re officially somebody important and nobody hardly at all—both together” and “Sometimes you’ll be doing the thing you know feels right to you—the adult thing—but somebody won’t pay attention and still make like you’re a kid, or worse, a non-person.” Reading it now, knowing my father as I do and sharing with him a penchant for both paradox and humorous understatement in potentially fraught situations, I totally get what he was trying to say. Not-quite-twelve-year old me found it utterly baffling. The only part I could make heads or tails of was a section toward the end when Dad was (I think) trying to empower me to make the choices I wanted, bullies be damned, but he chose the example of me choosing to watch MTV, and snack instead of going outside, getting plenty of exercise and not snacking. By the transitive power of hormones, I read this as “you choose to be fat, fat people deserve to be bullied, therefore you choose to be bullied.” It felt like a punch in the gut. I’m pretty sure I both believed it and thought Dad was total jerk for saying it. I avoided him for weeks, re-read my favorite biography of Elizabeth I (whose father was a notorious asshole) about six times and ignored the stack of conciliatory New Yorker Cartoons he’d slip into my backpack as Dad code for “Are you mad at me? Why are you mad at me? Puns, buddy, puns!

I  have neither a child nor a biological clock nagging me to run out and get one. This means I won’t have the chance to get all vague and existential in a letter to my own miserable, hormonal offspring. I probably won’t be able to sit down with a kid I love and tell her that people are assholes, usually because other people are assholes to them, and they make people feel sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out because they’re sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out themselves. No one deserves to feel that way—not even assholes!—but we all will, sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, until the times that we don’t and it’s a cycle. I’m pretty sure no one enjoys middle school except psychopaths. The best way to get through 12 (and 22 and 32 and 42) is to be gentle with yourself and easy with others. In as much as it is possible, find the humor, the (lower-case) grace and camaraderie among people that don’t expect you to be any more than what you are: a person with a voice and a mind and a story and  right to make her own choices and take up her own space.

Also, avoid perms. They’re terrible and anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is not your friend.

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Folk Remedies

My great-grandmother, Gladys Mitchell, spent the vast majority of her life living on a farm in the rolling meadows of eastern Franklin County, Virginia, spitting distance from what is now Smith Mountain Lake. Granny was  a superb quilter, a capable farm wife, an unfailingly kind and generous person and the kind of rare culinary talent that causes people to turn to tears and poetry when recounting her deceptively simple dishes* decades after the last Sunday dinner.

She had little formal education, having left school early, sometime before marrying my great-grandfather when they were both teenagers in the teenaged years of the 20th century. They spent the first part of their married life in a mining town in West Virginia. My great-grandfather dug for coal and played minor league baseball and Granny raised an ever increasing number of my great-uncles and aunts. A mine collapse left my grandfather with a broken back and little alternative  but a return to the family farm, where they could grow a little tobacco and raise maybe just enough to feed a family.

Granny may have had odd notions and strange ideas before settling down in the deep country. Or she may have picked them up from family, from neighbors, from the other farm women at church down the hill or from some tenant farmer hired on to help with the harvest  during the worst years of the Depression. For real, though, odd notions and strange ideas. Superstitions and myths and whatever washbasin alchemy  was going down in the old kitchen house.

Consider Granny’s recipe for wart removal, as recollected to me recently.

  1. Collect a small pebble from the yard.
  2. Rub wart with pebble until you draw blood.
  3. Wipe blood on pebble.
  4. Place pebble in small box, tied with ribbon.
  5. Walk to end of road.
  6. Throw box containing pebble over shoulder.
  7. Do not look back as you return to your house.
  8. Your wart will disappear, as it will have been passed on to whomever (whatever?) picks up the box.

Obviously, I have never (and will never) tried this.  My  own medical concerns (warts and all) were seen to by my grandmother and mother, women, respectively, a generation or two off the farm, full-time residents of the modern world in which afflictions large and small were more likely to be solved by a trip to CVS  instead of supernatural intervention.

Still, I like to imagine some archaeologist, years hence, uncovering a repository of small pebbles in decaying boxes tied with old ribbon alongside the rural highway near the old farm.  Maybe she’d come down with a mammoth case of Plantar Warts while riddling out the purpose of the boxed stones. I don’t really believe that and neither do you, but if we did, we might be able figure out the secret to Granny’s caramel cake. It’s probably just a question of oven temperature and sugar proportions. But maybe, just possibly, it’s pixies.

 

 

*I come from a family of great cooks and we have a stack of her recipes and not one of us can replicate the Greats. Granny passed away in 1990. Twenty-five years later we’re still arguing over ingredients and techniques.

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NEW YEAR’S EVE ANTICLIMAX #1: (2000/2001)

It was a bitterly cold December 31st–the kind of cold where breathing feels like swallowing knives–but I spent the day gleefully moving boxes and furniture into an exceedingly picturesque slum I’d just rented with my new roommate from Nevada. The process had been just shy of Sisyphean. Our  apartment was on the top floor, up three flights of narrow, steep “sign-this-waiver-to-say-you’re-cool-with-dying-in-a-fire-as-part-of-your-lease-agreement” wooden stairs that dated from a bygone era in which people were smaller or maybe just less litigious and more accustomed to misery. It took something like twelve people approximately eight hours to haul all of our stuff up the stairs. In between runs to the truck and various cars, friends would huddle by the clanking radiator, drinking lukewarm beer, likely wondering why I was going on about the glass front cabinet and the original crown molding when it was clear that the closed doors and windows failed to keep an arctic breeze from perpetually gusting through the living room. I was not quite twenty-five at the time, fresh off of a humiliating run of “moving back in with parents after failing at life”  which is to say I was drunk with newfound freedom. And I’ve always valued aesthetics over tiresome things like warmth, comfort  or structural integrity.

I’d been invited to a party at my friends’ parents’ house later that night. My friend himself had not volunteered to help with the moving, though he had (somewhat audaciously) sent his bandmates and his little sister in his stead. By the time I finally showered and dressed and headed out, it was maybe 10pm and I could barely walk, let alone down maneuver the stairs in my impractical party shoes (see above). I drove across town and sat in my car on the long end of my friend’s driveway, watching shadows of revelers silhouetted against the limestone gables of the house as ice crystals melted on my windshield. I smoked a cigarette and turned the car off and on, trying to talk myself into leaving and then into staying.

The party was well underway by the time I made up my mind to join it. I shivered through the porte-cochere and hobbled down another tricky staircase–this one stone and spiral–into a vast flagstone and woodpaneled rec room, where I found a lot of drunk people and an open bag of Doritos. I took the Doritos. My friend’s band was about to play, so I didn’t have time to make him feel bad for not helping me move. They’d been unable to set up amps in the rec room, because the rec room was perennially flooded and no one wanted to risk death for an abbreviated set of original pop punk songs. I joked that being so careful wasn’t very punk rock and I couldn’t tell if people thought I was being serious or if they just thought I wasn’t funny. Either way, I didn’t care. My fingers were Doritoed. My friend’s dog licked them while I waited for someone to jimmy open the powder room door with a butter knife.

Their performance was moved two flights upstairs to my friend’s brother’s rooms, which were themselves a converted servants’ quarters fitted  with lava lamp, various Jim Morrison posters and a mattress where I’d once spent the NYE previous sleeping off Gin and freezing to death while the old house moaned around me.  We all clustered uncomfortably in the narrow hallway and watched the band play about a half-dozen songs about the various kinds of people that annoyed my friend. I was extremely tired and my feet hurt. The band, except for my friend, also looked tired, because they’d help me move into my apartment. I felt guilty about that and sort of mad at my friend and also perplexed about why he was wearing a tweed jacket and an argyle sweater vest. Was he in costume? Was I supposed to be wearing a costume? I couldn’t remember.

After the band played, we clapped because no one wanted to be standing in the hallway anymore and we went back downstairs, where Dick Clark’s head was grotesquely distorted on the flood-damaged screen of an enormous television. I went outside to talk to my friend who was smoking a pipe in the miserable cold and half-bragging about how he’d shirked helping me move. I was too tired to get super-indignant about it, but I did think it was bullshit that he could find time to dress like Sherlock Holmes and smoke a pipe and sing a punk rock song about a refrigerator box but he couldn’t help me carry a single goddamn endtable up the stairs.

When midnight finally  came, I was sprawled across a pool table. I wasn’t drunk (I was too tired to drink) but the only way I could ameliorate the aches and pains of moving was to lie flat on my back. I ate Doritos from the bag and dangled my legs off the edge, enjoying the clatter of my fancy heels against the wood of the table. Periodically people would come by and talk to me. I kept failing to make a funny Kubrick joke, it being newly 2001 and all. A few times people even tried to laugh, probably because I lying on a pool table like a crazy person, covered in powdered cheese dust and glitter.

I thought I might sleep until 2002.

I didn’t.

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Life Among The Amazons

At a twenty year remove, I’m forced to concede that sometimes life hands you lemons sourer than not going to your first- (second or even third) choice college. There’s death, illness and oppression. There’s crushing poverty, violence and war. There are roommates that love patchouli. There are Jimmy Buffett fans. There is “Hotel California.”  At eighteen, though, I was sure pretty that Women’s College was the worst thing that could possibly happen.

“This place will be the death of me,” I said to a friend on the phone, without a trace of irony, after my first night in a peach and vanilla scented dorm, surrounded on all sides by stereos playing the same Counting Crows song, not quite in sync.

My friend was dealing with her own troubles the time, but managed something sympathetically Fuck Them-ish as I moaned about the fact that my Campus Schedule featured things like “Ice Cream Social” and “Cotillion” and the “Day Where All The Girls Dress In Wacky Costume, Bang On Pots and Climb a Mountain Singing Old Camping Songs.”

Coed, boozy and served up at an ironic distance  to my friends back home,  any one of those things might have sounded sort of fun. After all, we’d been to a high school featuring similarly outdated, absurd  and patronizing traditions. There we treated them as they should be treated: as excuses to sneak off, smoke cigarettes and fluster the prefects. “The weird hiking thing? People have told me about it at least six times. Like they genuinely think it’s a thing I might want to do.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it any more than I could wrap my head around the precise run of unfortunate events that landed me there. The short version  started with me being bad at math from roughly seventh grade and ended with an Unexpected Scholarship to the Women’s College. The long version was a toxic combination of underachievement, parental job loss, bad faculty advice, expensive out-of-state liberal arts colleges, a punitive admissions policy at my flagship state university (since lifted), a lack of financial aid and having the only family member that might help be grandmother who  believed I’d be grievously ruined by Communist Yankees with Disreputable Table Manners should I register for class north of the Mason-Dixon Line.*

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” my mother had said. She’d gone to a women’s college after all, one in the same state to which I’d been banished. But in her day women went to women’s colleges because of institutional sexism, not just a preference for not having dudes in their Abnormal Psych class. To me, single sex colleges not objectively bad, maybe, but, like garter belts and hand fans, a quaint response to a problem since solved.  And sure, I did try to believe it might be all right. The Women’s College definitely wanted me–that was flattering. I came from a matriarchal family. Most of best friends were women. Just because the girls in middle school/my camp cabin/junior high gym class/field hockey practice/every slumber party I’d ever been to had been complete assholes en masse, that didn’t mean my college classmates would lock me in the bathroom and call me a fat smelly loser.  Perhaps women’s college would be thick with bluestockings, riot grrrls, woman warriors, and artists who had no time for traditional gender roles because they were creating furious and brilliant things. Women who didn’t allow their sex to define them and didn’t care how men saw them.

And to be fair, there were a few of these. A precious few. But mostly it was willowy, blonde  debutantes in riding boots visiting the stables between class. It was like a summer camp for Barbies, each girl more beautiful than the next and every one more beautiful than I.  Every Thursday, my dorm would mostly empty out, and my now-perfectly made-up and coiffed classmates with disappear by the carload to fraternity houses throughout the Old Dominion. There, they would hook up with young Republicans named after confederate generals and come back late Sunday with a hangover and a pregnancy scare. I hated them and every time I tried to explain why, I was accused of sour grapes. Is it just that you’re jealous that you weren’t invited to the Sigma Chi Cock and Bull Bonanza Blaze Weekend? I mean, maybe if you brushed your hair and put on a little make-up, you might get a date too. And that, of course, made me hate them even more.

Of course, there were other kinds of girls– modesty-positive Bible-beaters, who’d show up in my creative writing workshop with a sonnet cycle about Jesus and the sacred duty of the womb, painfully shy women, who hid away in halls with incredibly restrictive visitation policies, radical lesbians. I tried to hang with the latter, thinking that maybe there I’d find my funny, angry weird people. Maybe we could start a revolution together. Maybe I’d level up on the Kinsey Scale. Maybe I’d find a soulmate.  But the Womyn’s Collective was a mostly dour affair–a mess of internecine squabbles and humorless debates about vocabulary and  spelling. It was about halfway through my first and only meeting, when I realized I just didn’t care enough to be righteous. I didn’t belong.

I’d carved a sliver of an identity out of books and records and hair dye and thrift store dresses. I thought it might keep me afloat.  It was so precarious, built on the illusion of knowledge I did not really have and a façade of toughness so paper-thin that it would collapse in a light drizzle.  It mattered to me, perhaps more than it should, to be inspired, to be respected, to have a like-minded community that would accept me on my own terms. I remember thinking, what if they don’t exist? what if I never find them? what if I’m doomed to be forever alone? what if Women’s College is as good as it gets?

It was maybe the second weekend on campus when I went down to a mixer in the pavilion under the dining hall and watched  a wide-faced frat brother extend his arm and refer to us, all the women at the college, by our unofficial nickname. It was a breed of dog that rhymed (sort of) with the Women’s College-pretty, purebred, longhaired, expensive. And the best part is they always come when their master calls. His friends howled. I looked away, disgusted, horrified that my classmates would allow men to speak that way on their campus, enraged at myself for not punching his smug, fat, entitled face, but mostly furious that I had been included. I didn’t feel angry solidarity with my fellow students, the girls who didn’t care, the girls who would date that guy. I felt gross and humiliated to be seen, if only for a second, as one of them, an expensive pet, bred for the pleasure of some asshole in madras shorts.

***

The play was a thesis project on the subject of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, and brainchild of a radical feminist theater graduate student, whose directorial style was basically a just do what feels right for you kind of thing. Imagine the awkward stepchild of performance art and a sixth grade school book report skit, but with Jacques Lacan played by an adorable snub-nosed, brunette from Kansas and Achilles played by a girl who looked like a boy who looked like a member of a Brit Pop band. Offstage, Achilles was dating Penthesilea. Every night before rehearsal they bickered in the green room and every night at rehearsal Achilles slayed her girlfriend onstage. Theirs was a compelling cycle, and probably better suited for the stage than the actual show.

If I recall correctly, we hadn’t auditioned, merely put our name on a sign-up sheet in the dining hall lobby. That was fine with me. I’d auditioned for a legit Drama Department production my first week on campus but I’d been cut after the first callbacks. I took this very hard—at least this godawful third-place, backup college could give me a fucking part in their stupid shitty fall play—and petulantly swore off ever acting again. Then the only friend I’d made on campus got bored listening to me complain and started taking fraternity weekends with her roommate . Boredom and desperate loneliness drove me into a chiton and a spirit gum and cotton ball beard. I played Aristotle. My entire performance consisted of stomping around a platform shaped like an isosceles triangle carping the female sex in my best ersatz Oxbridge. It wasn’t much of a stretch, as I’d basically spent the last few weeks doing just that,** but without the facial hair and the accent.

We spent the first half of our rehearsal schedule in an over-bright multipurpose room in the science building with stage directions masking-taped to the floor. We rehearsed in scenes and sections. I never saw a complete script. My group–ancient philosophers—was comprised of myself, Plato and one other, who I’m going to call Diogenes, because I don’t remember who she was supposed to be. We trudged around our  triangle of misogyny for about ten minutes every night and got released just as my roommate (an orgiastic Helene Cixous) and the modern theorists arrived to do their thing. I didn’t have anything in common with Plato and Diogenes. In fact, I had a clear sense that Plato hated my guts, which would have been completely fair. I’d spent most of the last few weeks  indiscriminately telling my classmates to fuck off. I had no idea if Plato had been on the receiving end and, more importantly, I didn’t care.

Achilles  didn’t show up until we moved rehearsals into the actual theater, which was as charming, historic and slighty claustrophobic  as the rest of campus. After that first night, I ended up on my only cast-related hangout until the cast party. Jacques Lacan recommended we buy coloring books as well as cigarettes, so we ended up drinking coffee and smoking, coloring Disney characters together at a diner until 2am. I remember thinking, Is this fun? Do I hate this? Is this really what college is like? On the way back to the school, Lacan sang us a song in Russian. Her voice was high and clear and sweet. I was touched. She was talented. I told her so.

“How do you stay sane here?” I asked.

“I love it here,” she said. “This is exactly where I want to be.”

And I thought, things would be so much easier if I could make myself feel that way.

The play opened. People came to see it, which shocked me. I sprayed my hair silver and waited until the house lights dimmed to put on my beard so I could smoke outside  the stage door with Achilles. She’d had—or more accurately, was having—a particularly nasty spat with Penthesilea.  I didn’t see their final duel on stage, but I figured that one would surprisingly credible The cast party was held in the cinderblock basement of a classroom building. It was ugly and damp and stank of beer and mildew. “This would be a great place for punk rock shows,” I said, knowing, even as I said it, that the Women’s College would never be a great place for punk rock shows.

My roommate and Diomedes fretted over the music selections. Somebody made me my first fuzzy navel, which smelled like a Bath and Body Works gift basket and tasted sort of like my dorm. I’d hoped for maybe a beer, but the first thing you learn at Women’s College is that there is never any beer at Women’s College.***  I was eighteen and without a fake ID. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Achilles had a bottle of something that was definitely not Peach Schnapps and offered to share. I poured it a bit into a plastic cup and got very drunk very quickly. I walked home sometime later, supported by my roommate and my only friends, hollering across the quad about how Nirvana was actually a pretty good band, even if they had ripped off the Pixies, and then I passed out on my bed in my clothes.

It was the first really good night I had at college. If it had been a movie, this would have been a happy ending Life isn’t life the movies, though. I woke up the next morning with a hangover, not a renewed sense of purpose and community.  I didn’t grow to love Women’s College or the women who went there. I didn’t learn something special about myself.

I transferred of Women’s College after exactly two semesters with a few close friends, the closest of which had all been at that same cast party,  a few credit hours and a palpable sense of relief. After  Women’s College, my social circle moved  out of the theater and into record stores,  self-consciously seedy bars and nightclubs with terrifying bathrooms. That scene required its own kind of  performance–a full-time acting job at the outset– and I lacked the interest and the energy to take on other roles. “Penthesilea” was almost the last time I acted in a play. Almost, because fifteen years later the best friend I met (but do not remember meeting) at the “Penthesilea” party, cast me in the show she wrote for her wedding. I remember standing on stage, watching her take vows, thinking, This friendship is just about the only good thing that came out of my year at Women’s College. I remember thinking, my freshman year? I guess it could have been worse.

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*Nana was over the moon about the Women’s College for exactly all the reasons I suspected it would be hell on earth. For one thing, it was located just across town from her house, in my mother’s hometown, so I would be available for weekly, if not daily visits and to attend any and all events involving my mostly conservative, rural extended family.  And as she said, quality people have been sending their daughters to the Women’s College since before the Civil War. Only the finest girls from the best families go to the Women’s College. Even rich Yankees would send their daughters there to learn how to be ladies.. When I was young, all the girls at the Women’s College had to bring at least twenty-five pairs of white gloves and their own set of sterling silver. I would have loved to have gone there (wistful sigh).  Let me know if you’ll need that sterling, honey, and I’ll put a few places settings together for you.

**A cursory overview of my freshman year journal finds the phrase “I hate women” a staggering twenty-three times. The self-loathing wasn’t lost on me. “I hate myself” and “I hate my life” each appear roughly twice as often.

***Gross and full of calories, I’d been told early on by a girl putting away a bottle of Strawberry-flavored Boone’s Farm

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Liminality

I went to the kind of high school that had its own Coat of Arms–you know, a faux-medieval crest and a Latin motto. It was stitched onto ties and blazers, affixed to notebooks, pencils, coffee mugs, pint glasses, beach towels, baseball caps and pretty much any other crap the School thought they sell to parents and alumni. There wasn’t much to the crest part–no windmills or boars or disembodied knight’s heads—but the Latin motto, though, was quite the statement. On the Threshold of an Excellent Life. It was just  grandiose enough to inspire the writing of tuition checks,  but vague enough that no one would point fingers if, say, Junior got booted out of Duke and ended up a bartender living indefinitely in his parents’ Wrightsville Beach vacation rental

I always liked the way it sounded. On the threshold of an excellent life! All teenagers want to believe they are bound for great and terrible things. And like most teenagers who’d survived adolescence on a steady diet of (often silly) quest novels, I liked the idea that I might have an uncommon destiny, clearly recognized by the admissions office at my high school. And so I endured three years of preposterous dress code, nine hour school days, Saturday classes, Draconian rules, required athletics and the silly institutionalized Anglophilia of boarding school, even a boarding school in Appalachia.

When commencement rolled around, the threshold would at last be crossed. Make no mistake: graduation was a formal affair. No simple caps and gowns would. Our dress code was matrimonial. The boys would wear dark suits and girls white dresses and carry long stemmed bouquets of roses. We processed in a column, two by two, under the archway of the classroom building, past the chapel, alongside a quintet of hired horns playing “Trumpet Voluntary,” and through the gathered audience to our folding chairs in the grass. I remember having a lot of unanswered questions about the white dresses. White was unflattering and impractical and dangerous for those of us inclined toward ink spots, coffee spills and grass stains. “Because it’s traditional,” one of the mothers had said—but I didn’t know of any tradition mandating that women look virginal in order to receive a diploma. “Maybe Mr. (Headmaster) is planning on offering one of us up as a virgin sacrifice,” one of my classmates said. We rolled our eyes, like anyone is actually lame enough to still be a virgin and tittered. Including me, even though I was, in fact, a big fat virgin in silk crepe and chiffon and a literal crown of flowers. If anyone was going to be served up as an entrée to some eldritch horror in order to consecrate my classmates’ forthcoming excellent lives, it was going to be me.

I would be pre-cooked, at least. It was a hot June morning, clear and bright. The trees around the lawn provided ambient sun dappling, but little practical shade and it was a long program, heavy on pomp and barely-disguised appeals for donations to the annual fund. The class speaker—a disappointed Olympic hopeful—spoke endlessly about volunteering and (maybe) Buddhism. Our class poet snarled out a semi-metered jeremiad about hate–hate is the fire that feeds you. His passion was obvious, though his point mostly lost on classmates that only really hated dress code and the school itself, which we could be done with, Praise Jesus and Glory Hallelujah, if our Henry Rollins-loving bard would kindly step on it.

I received my diploma in a puffy, embossed, faux leather folder that I would find useful as both a mousepad and a trivet over the course of my college years.  Then the brass fired up the shaker hymn from “Appalachian Spring” and it was over.

Pictures happened, official and unofficial. The Dean of Students circulated through the crowd reminding recent graduates that though the school could not technically take our diplomas away for violating the handbook, ours was a non-smoking campus and North Carolina alcohol laws were still in effect, so I better not see a flask, people.

My alcoholic fabulist grandfather made a rare appearance. He intoned some pompous business about family legacy and posterity at the head of the lunch buffet line and was about to embark on some serious lily-gilding when he discovered that one of my best friends was the granddaughter of a woman in Mississippi he’d been engaged to during World War II. “She was an extraordinary woman. A great love of my early life. Tragically, she returned the ring.” The rest of the table seemed largely unmoved by this information. Mississippi is a small state. I mean, isn’t everyone down there related? I, however, was bowled over. “We could have been the same person!” I said to my friend. She looked at me with what might have been a trace of horror. She was ranking scholar of the school, headed to Brown by way of a post graduation jaunt to Europe. Her future looked bright. I was a chronic underachiever headed to the first of what would end up being the three disappointing colleges I could afford by way of Lollapalooza, part time jobs and whatever punk rock bands were desperate enough to play early 90s-era downtown Asheville. My future was looking for a silver lining.

The thing about graduation night at boarding school is that there are no parties, no cookouts, no extended farewells, People pack up and leave. It just ends. Of those I was closest to, I stayed in touch with a few. Some friends just drift away. Sometimes things just get weird. You stay friends with people you never knew you were friends with to begin with. You lose track of people you loved. Such is the way of things past the threshold.

I ended up spending graduation night with my bound-for-Brown friend, because sometime during the pomp and circumstance and white dresses, she’d learned that another of our childhood friends, one that hadn’t gone to our high school, had passed away. His death hadn’t been entirely unexpected—he suffered from a congenital heart disease—but it was nonetheless tragic, made even more so by the fact that he’d been a genuinely kind, honestly exceptional sort of person. My friend had been closer to him than I was. She was devastated. And so I spent my graduation night trying figure out what to say that didn’t sound awkward or inappropriate or trite. I knew I couldn’t talk about our future, the excellent life we’d purportedly stepped into. That was a place without disappointment, without grief, without failure, without regret. That was a place where our success was all but guaranteed and all our dreams would come true. In those waning moments of graduation day, I reallly didn’t want to consider limitations. I didn’t want to contemplate mortality or let myself feel loss. I was eighteen. I selfishly wanted to bask in that breathless, infinite possibility my own what ifs. I wanted to envision all the glories of my excellent destiny. I wanted to believe in it. But I couldn’t. And I didn’t. So I sat smoking cigarettes on a damp, stone wall of a mountain overlook, searching the night sky in vain for something to say that would comfort my friend. Something full of grace and wisdom and compassion. Something that acknowledged just how rarely life is excellent. Something that didn’t sound like so much bullshit.

 

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Be Mine

2017 Update: I performed a live (and slightly shorter) version of this story at the Moth Story Slam in Asheville in February of 2016. You can listen to it here:

I was fifteen years old, an awkward, fat fifteen year old, with awkward flat hair still growing out from a fuck the world, running away from home, self-administered haircut dating from seven months previous. I was pretentious, weird and unapologetically nerdy in ways that were not and will never be cool or profitable. I was a drama kid, a madrigal singer, a day student at a boarding school and owner of wardrobe that largely consisted of items either crushed velvet or teal (or both). For five months, I had been impossibly, breathlessly infatuated with The Boy who was eighteen and played guitar and liked Shakespeare and read James Joyce and had pretty blue eyes and a preppy swoop of brown hair. He sent me Yeats poems copied out on that old, ugly gray recycled notebook paper over Christmas break. He was an actor, and thus a profligate flirt. I was naïve and ill-accustomed to boys being nice to me. Mine was the kind of crush that woke me up in the morning, that dictated my music taste (whatever he liked), my diet (vegetarian—just like him), the books I read, the extracurriculars I pursued, the friends I made. I felt weak at his voice and shaky at his approach. I endowed him with magical powers because he was cute and smart and the sort of person I though I wanted to be with or maybe just the sort of person I thought I wanted to be.

Anyway, I went to campus on a Saturday night for the Valentine’s Day dance. I didn’t have a date. I most certainly didn’t have a date with The Boy. Still, I’d put on my favorite sweater (pink angora) and a fair amount of eye make-up (inexpertly). I had a mind to find The Boy and tell him how I felt or at least stand close enough that he might intuit the way I felt and kiss me and we’d maybe slow dance to The Bangles or Peter Gabriel or Tchaikovsky and it would end the way all great fairytales do—with a glass slipper and Jake Ryan and birthday cake on a dining room table.

It took me a while to find him. He wasn’t at the dance or in any of the common rooms. He’d been running the soundboard on a faculty stage show and finally, someone—I don’t remember whom—told me I might find The Boy in the light booth. And so I went to the theatre and edged down the narrow brick corridor and climbed the steep metal stairs to the booth above. I was on this wire between abject terror and woozy excitement, marveling at my own unprecedented bravery I’m going to do this, like, for real. I don’t remember if I knocked. I do remember that when I opened the door I saw The Boy with A Friend of Mine sharing an intimate moment. I remember standing in confused shock for a moment. I remember one of them asking me to shut the door. I remember hovering on the landing for a moment before My Friend came out and asked me (in so many words) to accept that they were dating leave them alone. I remember the door closing behind her. I remember taking the first step, staring at the high brick wall in front of me.

I don’t remember the falling, nor do I remember the screaming, though everyone in the theatre claims to have heard me scream. I was out for a few—maybe five– minutes. When I woke up, The Boy knelt on one side of me, my music teacher on the other. The Friend stood at my feet, staring horror-stricken at my face. They all acted enormously concerned for my well being. They might have thought  I’d broken my back or suffered irreparable brain damage. I was a little anxious about my right wrist–which I thought maybe was sprained– but more panicked about my heart—which was most certainly broken beyond repair. My Friend offered to walk me to the infirmary. I let her.

It took a while for the nurse to track my mother down. My Friend sat with me in the darkness of an empty sick room while we waited. She tried to make small talk. I obliged. As the scion of southern matriarchs, I knew no better way to punish than fostering an atmosphere conducive to guilt and self-recrimination. I acted the perfect martyr I’m so sorry I interrupted you and The Boy. I hope I’m not ruining your evening. You’re a perfect angel to sit and wait with me indefinitely while I’m bruised and bleeding when you could be out having a romantic Valentine’s Day. Did I mention how perfectly thrilled I am that you and The Boy are seeing each other? To think that two people I care so much for would find each other . . . it really is magical. I’m just so happy for you both. You deserve all the happiness in the world.

My mother showed up breathless and harried in rhinestones and this dramatic black velvet party dress that made her look like a cross between Joan Crawford and Guinevere. She was worried, but also clearly put out at having been called away from her own Valentine’s Day plans. We drove to the hospital. I rested my pounding forehead on the cold glass, aware that I left a sticky blood residue whenever I pulled away. Mom sighed a lot. She kept patting my shoulder to make sure I didn’t fall asleep.

The ER was bright I stood at the check-in desk with my mother and watched a gaggle of scrubs wheel in man who was bleeding from his stomach. I thought maybe it was a gunshot wound. I’d never seen a gunshot wound. I tried to say something to Mom about it but she was arguing with the nurse about the severity of my injuries. I made for a chair and endured the stares and at least one old woman patting me hand with a friendly You poor thing, who beat you? look. I tried not to fall asleep and played regular rounds of head injury trivia—Who is the president? How many fingers am I holding up? Are you seeing double?

They put me in a CAT Scan and told me to lie still. I went into the tube thinking that the hospital might collapse and I would mummify inside this machine and future explorers would uncover my remains and I would be called something like “Fat Girl Adolescent #38b, Brain Damaged by Clumsiness, Disappointed In Love. ” Maybe they’d make a movie about me, in which I wouldn’t be fat, but I would be played by the future version of Lara Flynn Boyle or Sherilyn Fenn or any of those girls from “Twin Peaks.” Maybe Martha Plimpton. I liked Martha Plimpton.

I had a minor concussion. The ER doctor told me to take it easy and report back if I started vomiting or going blind. I asked Mom if I could stay home from school for a few days. She told me she thought that would be fine.

I cried on the way home. When Mom asked if there was anything she could do about it, I asked her for a chocolate milkshake. She pulled into a drive-thru and didn’t say anything at all  about the calories, for which I was exceedingly grateful.

Two days later, I returned to school to usher the faculty play. I wore some flow-y teal skirt and an elaborate Ophelia-ish crown of flowers my mother had ordered for me as a post-concussion Valentine’s consolation prize. My face was a horror mask—brilliant purple and green bruises and this enormous, Australia-shaped wound on my cheek resulting from sliding face-first across industrial carpet and into a brick wall. I looked like done ten rounds with Apollo Creed before interviewing with the Inquisition and would maybe be burned as an offering at intermission. I smiled benignly as I suffered the shocked faces of my fellow students, and listened to The Boy’s terrible, shitty, douchebag playlist as the house filled, knowing that he was just above me and hating myself for still caring. Every now and then I’d glance at My Friend (who stood just across the landing from me) and try to grin in such a way that she’d see all the cuts and bruises around the outside of my mouth and know that it hurt like hell to smile, but I was going to fucking do it anyway.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Postscript:

Though I’d like to tell you otherwise, I didn’t stop crushing on the The Boy after The Fall. I held a torch for him, even as he gradually stopped speaking to me and making eye-contact with me, after he dated My Friend for months, after he gradated, after I wrote him a long confession of unrequited love on ugly gray recycled notebook paper and he responded with a terse note asking me to kindly fuck off. I spent the first half of that summer—the summer I was sixteen—listening to Morrissey and sobbing, from equal measures of heartbreak and shame. I started hanging out with a classmate who lived down the block. Our friendship consisted mostly of shit-talking The Boy, eating cheap Mexican, listening to Cocteau Twins and chain-smoking as we drove round the most expensive neighborhoods in town criticizing the mansion-dwellers for their abysmal taste. Sooner or later, I grew into a sense of humor and developed a taste for punk rock.  It became harder and harder to like—let alone love– an eighteen year old boy who quoted himself on his senior page, aspired to write socially-conscious prog rock operas and complained that no one appreciated his (always capitalized) Art. Was he a douchebag? Almost certainly.

In fairness, I was a weird, unattractive, obsessive teenager, who did repeatedly call his parents’  and hang up over spring break, who did memorize his class schedule so I could always know where he’d be in the hall, who did, the following year, spend a several free periods lounging in My Friend’s dorm room, so I could read the letters The Boy wrote to her from his year abroad in England when she went to the bathroom. Was I a psycho? Sure, but I was also a sixteen and miserable with loneliness and hormones. The Boy wasn’t my last ride at the unrequited love rodeo (in fact, one might argue he was merely the first chapter in what became a depressingly repetitive, darkly comic work in progress), but his kiss off did signal the end my career as a lovestruck, moon-eyed, uncontrollable mess. But I guess I have puberty to thank for that.

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On The Eighty-First Anniversary of Repeal

This morning I had coffee with my grandmother Gloria (aka Nana) and her husband (my step-grandfather) Lee, in Roanoke, Virginia. Both of them celebrated birthdays this week. Nana turned eighty-eight (though she calls it forty-nine) and Lee ninety-one. Though they both raised families and spent their adult lives in Roanoke, they grew up (though didn’t know each other) in nearby, rural Franklin County.

Nana and her oldest three siblings were born in Pocahontas, West Virginia, where my great-grandfather, Jarvey Mitchell, (a one-time minor league ball player) dug coal and tried to provide for any extended family still tied to an unprofitable tobacco farm back in Franklin County. Sometime around 1930/31, a mine collapsed while my great-grandfather was in it. He managed to get three of his fellow miners to safety before the ceiling buckled and fell, crushing his leg, leaving him in a full body cast for a year and crippled for the rest of his life. No longer able to work the mines, he moved his young family back to his father and mother’s property in Franklin County,  where he took up farming and whatever jobs his new disability would allow.

Jarvey settled into the farmhouse where he’d spent his early years before bad crops and financial hardship pushed he and his siblings to seek work the less pastoral pockets of the Blue Ridge. His mother, Della Virginia, had (scandalously) divorced Jarvey’s father, James, and taken up with another man. She moved into a house further down the way on the property. Her ex-husband, Jarvey’s father James, occupied a Spartan room at the top of the back stairs in the farmhouse, in which he daydreamed and entertained his grandchildren with first-person stories of the Civil War (which happened before his birth) and great tales from literature (which, illiterate, he hadn’t read).

The first year the Mitchells spent back in Virginia was a hard one. Jarvey, incapacitated, relied on his wife and very young children to tend to his needs and produce what they could from what was scarcely better than a subsistence farm. Nana, four or five years old at the time,  was devoted to her ailing father.

Nana: “I thought my daddy was the handsomest man I’d ever seen. He was tall–6’2 or 6’3–and stood so straight before the accident. He had this shock of dark hair and just looked like a prince. Mother [my great-grandmother, Gladys] told me that the day of the accident I had run out to stand on the porch with him in Pocahontas and just begged him not to go to work.

“After the mine collapse, I used to sit with him for hours beside the bed and get him food and drink and cigarettes. I would just tell him he would get better and Daddy was so kind even though he was so broken and it was the Depression and we were very poor.”

Once he was able to work, Jarvey tried to provide for what was a growing cadre of dependents, including his parents, some of his siblings, his children, at least one adopted child, tenant farmers and various members of the greater community fallen on hard times. It was the Depression and still Prohibition and like many of the men in his notorious-for-illegal-booze county, Jarvey rigged up a still and made whiskey on the sly.

Nana contends that he only made it in small batches “for Christmas and such,” but it seems unlikely.  His mother, Della Virginia (who may or may not have been an bootlegger herself), liked her liquor.

Nana: “Grandmother would pour herself a tall iced tea glass full of corn liquor and just sip on it throughout the day. If it got low, she’d refill it. She never seemed drunk. It hardly affected her at all. She used to tell me  was just water, but I tasted it once and it burned me all the way down the esophagus. And she just laughed and laughed

“She drank that every day without any problem, but once every ten days or so, she’d be taken with a powerful, nasty headache and Daddy would send me down to her house to put cold cloths on her forehead and tend to her until the worst pain had passed. And by the next day she would be drinking her whiskey out of the water glass again.”

The Mitchell family alcohol production was not limited to whiskey. Nana’s mother, Gladys, made various wines and stored them for cooking and holiday purposes. She gave them to her family members as gifts.

Nana: “We had grapes at the farm at Glade Hill and Mother would make wine and grape juice. Once when I was about ten years old, I went to visit my grandmother [Della Virginia] when she was having one of her whiskey headaches and she poured me a big glass of my mother’s grape juice and told me to drink it. I thought it tasted a little off, but grandmother was insistent that I not waste it.

“When I left to go home that afternoon, I felt sluggish and dizzy. At the end of grandmother’s driveway were two old walnut trees and I could have sworn they were just swaying and dancing in the breeze even though there was no wind. By the time I got back to my house, I had a terrible headache and just thought I was getting sick. My mother took one look at me and said, ‘Honey, you’re drunk!’ and insisted that I go sleep it off on the sofa in the front room.”

My step-grandfather’s family had a more professional approach to alcohol production. Before Lee was born, his father made black market booze semi-professionally way out in the county and had a considerable reputation as a producer of quality corn whiskey (and in some volume). When he and his wife started having children, he left the bootlegging to his brother and moved into Rocky Mount, the largest town in Franklin County, to run a small grocery store.

Lee: “Once my father walked away from the still, he never drank or smoked again. He was the very picture of an upright gentleman.”

And yet despite that, the Lee’s father sold bootleg liquor out of the back of his store throughout Prohibition and beyond. His brother Ed was a regular supplier:

Lee: “My uncle had a quite a system rigged up to avoid detection, for the police were crawling up the hillsides in those days looking for stills. My uncle kept track of the dirt path leading up to the still and could rearrange the dirt and rock just so so it looked like no one had climbed up to the rocky side of the path. His accomplices also had it figured how to send messages through symbols in the path about who was coming or who might come by. He also had this removable hedge–mostly fake–that he could slide in front of the path like a gate so folks would think they’d come to an impassable part of the forest.

“Ed made liquor long after most had quit. He had a partner in the whiskey making  named Lefty [ed: maybe Les or Laffy, I couldn’t tell]. They’d get chased by police up and down that road to Callaway and once ended up doing business from the back of a mule when they had to hide the car in a hurry.”

Both Nana and Lee agreed that the most notorious bootleggers in Franklin County were the Hodges, who lived in Glade Hill, not farm from the Mitchells.

Nana: “Willard Hodges was in charge of most of that. He was the richest man in that part of the county and had the nicest house in Glade Hill. They lived in a big old house over near the high school. It was a beautiful Georgian farmhouse with a portico and real –not just old plaster–white columns. They owned the gas station and right much else as well, but the money came from the moonshine and everyone knew it.

“It all ended up being quite tragic. The two Hodges boys both died trying to outrun the police, driving like bats out of you know where  round what they used to call Dead Man’s Curve up at Boone’s Mill. The car took the hill too fast and went off into the ravine.

“Willard himself died in a motorcycle accident a few years later. I knew his daughter Mary Louise a little. She was a strange girl, as you might expect.”

Both Nana and Lee moved out of Franklin County after high school. Nana took a job as a typist for Western Union in Roanoke and then as a salesgirl at the Heironimus department store before marrying my grandfather. Lee went to the war and afterwards to law school. He ended up practicing criminal law and would, much later (and rather notoriously) identify the provenance of a jar of illegal moonshine entered as states evidence by its smell during a cross examination.

They’ve both admitted to drinking moonshine in the last decade, although, these days, both of them much prefer a high-end, well-aged single malt to corn.

Nana: “But sometimes people bring it to us as a gift.”

Lee: “And don’t you know,it would just be real impolite to turn down a gift.”

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Book Marks

I’m not sure who decided I was a huge Jane Austen fan, but at some point, about ten years ago, various pieces of Austen-related kitsch started showing up in my house. It seemed innocuous enough at the time. And I get it. When gift-giving time comes, my friends and family see a Pemberley-branded tea cozy or a set of Lizzie Bennett cocktail napkins and think, “Alison reads books and knows a weird amount about English history, I’m sure she’d be tickled pink to receive these totes pink Mansfield Park slipper socks!”

I don’t want to be a jerk about it. My friends and family are trying to be thoughtful. And it’s probably not worth it for me to get into the fact that I find most 19th century English novels* just the side of “eh?” Nor is it fair for me to bombard them with lists of my favorite writers on the off chance that one of them might be able to scare up John Milton hand soap or a Flann O’Brien snow globe** or something.

As it happens, I do like Jane Austen. I find her books appealingly darker and meaner than a lot of folks would have you believe and contrary to the general consensus, I’m not sure any of them necessarily end “happily.” She’s not in my Top Ten, but she’s a great deal more appealing than a lot of other writers people assume that I must just love ( eg: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, pretty much all of the Beats and Haruki Murakami).

In the meantime, I’ll make do. I’m a pretty clumsy person and my seemingly endless supply of Mr. Darcy band-aids sure do come in handy.

* I like Thackeray and George Eliot quite a bit. I’ve long been a fan (like since adolescence) of the Bronte sisters and their psychotic seriously? the fuck? Gothic potboilers. But in general, I don’t love 19th century novels unless the books explicitly address how miserable it was to be a sexually repressed, psychologically hamstrung hypocrite with terrible neighbors, uncomfortable underwear and weird politics. Which is why I vastly prefer Russian and French novels of the period and I probably like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James better than you do.

**For serious: I want one.