Elm, 1995-1999

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Let me tell you how writing used to be.

When I was eighteen, twenty, twenty-two years old, I could sit with a notebook, at a keyboard, in the margins of a textbook, and words would pour out without hesitation. I could do 5000 words in a couple of hours, 10000 in a night, hopped up on nothing but diner coffee and Camel Lights. It felt so natural, that I’d unlocked this superpower. I could turn a tap and it would never run dry. Even when everything fell apart. And, of course, it did.

***

I moved to Elm because I moved to a mid-sized southern sprawl city to attend a second-tier state university.  I did most of that so I could escape women’s college and live with my best friend.

We met junior year of boarding school, settled into sort of best friend and soulmate territory sometime between “Hamlet” and Milton senior year of high school. We both got into the same fancy, weird liberal arts college in upstate New York, where we’d be roommates and fabulous. Neither of us could afford it. So I ended up at Women’s College and she took a gap year. And I told myself my grief about settling for my corner of last resort was as much about not being with her as it was the rest of it.

I went through another round of complicated transfer applications to schools I couldn’t pay for. And when she called and said, “What about second-tier state university? It’s less than an hour from the first-tier state university and didn’t you say they have a good writing program?” (I did). “They having rolling admissions and we’ll absolutely get in.” (We did). “We can live together. We do the things we thought we’d do in New York. We’ll make a heaven out of this still-heavily-segregated mess of box parks, mega-churches, strip clubs and subdivisions!”

I’d never visited Second Tier State University when I applied to school there. I’d been to the city where it was located exactly once, years before, when my ninth grade Latin class stopped to eat at the mall food court on the way to a convention in Chapel Hill. I had no particular sense of the town, save its Civil Rights history until my mother and I drove down to meet my best friend and try to find an apartment. 

The city was hot. Campus was a sunbaked, with little green and less ivy. There were too many parking lots and too many divided highways. No one walked on the streets downtown. We toured two apartments, the first a prefab joint, overpriced, specifically engineered for shitty undergrads. It smelled like a Lysol and locker room. The landlord was an oily creep. We fled two miles uptown, to a green tree-lined neighborhood with Park in the title to check out an apartment I circled in the classified because the listing named chandeliers, high ceilings, vintage tiles.

Elm was the second floor southwestern corner of a U-shaped building, with a verdant courtyard that look like something out of a film noir. The apartment was a giant two bedroom with huge windows and shiny wood floors and the afore-mentioned chandeliers. It had grumbling old radiators connected to a cantankerous boiler and a window unit. It had open shelves in the kitchen with hooks for teacups. It was completely impractical, slightly overpriced (at the time) and unquestionably the biggest and most beautiful place I’ve rented to date. It looked like a cross between an apartment in a Film Noir and one of those fancy Upper West Side joints where rich intellectuals lived in  Woody Allen movies.

“We’re absolutely taking this,” I told my mother.

“This apartment is everything,” said my best friend.

We signed a lease and handed off a deposit.

Three weeks later we moved in.

We sat on the fire escape smoking cigarettes, dusty, sweaty and tired that first night, squinting at the skyline two blocks up and pretending it was a real city.

“This place may be hell,” she said, but smiled a bit.

I nodded, and thought, but this apartment is heaven.

***

I’m a bit of a worst case scenarioist, but I’m pretty bad at anticipating disaster.

I should have predicted Elm’s first big heartbreak.  I could feel the change in the weather, the pressure drop, the thickening air, the first gusts of hot air from the east. I probably should have taken shelter when Best Friend started speaking to her ex again. He was a furious scowl with green hair and a rap sheet, a habit of showing up uninvited. He hadn’t cottoned to me from the go, probably because he saw me as spoiled, entitled,  an unambiguous poser, and owner of no punk rock punk enough for him to enjoy –“Don’t you have anything with less melody”– but maybe also because I was dangerously and completely full of shit. So was she, though. It was one of the reasons I loved her. Probably one of the reasons he loved her too.

We were each other’s best and absolute worst impulses, the sublime and the ridiculous. We lived on the knifepoint. I was from the mountains. She was from the coast. It was no wonder our collisions felt tectonic. We had no buffer zone. Things were terrible until they were wonderful.  And since the first Christmas or so, they were mostly terrible, unless we were seeing bands play or traveling to see bands play or stealing vintage dresses out of after-hour donations bags left outside the DONATIONS ACCEPTED sign at the thrift store. It’s not really stealing if someone’s already giving it away, right?

 We shared multiple jobs between us but were always, always, broke. . The only class we didn’t failed spring semester, the only one we even went to, was the one about Decadent Poets. We wore sequins under gas station jackets. Fishnet tights and combat boots with Oscar Wilde quotes carved into the soles. Hours were golden. Whole days, misery. I didn’t trust her friends. She mostly hated mine. I wrote a short story loosely based on her and submitted it to the campus literary magazine. I meant it as a tribute, because I was young and dumb. She didn’t speak to me for a week.

We officially failed out of school couple weeks before my mother’s wedding though, failed out is too strong of a term for a school that gave countless underachievers countless opportunities to fuck up, spread out over as many semesters as possible[1]. The only way to remove ourselves from Academic Probation was summer school. We’d both enrolled, but on the first day, my roommate left for the season. I stayed back in our apartment and started writing a novel, because she’d opined that I never would just before she fucked off for Atlanta. I didn’t tell her about it. I didn’t tell her much of  anything over the summer.  I couldn’t wait for her to come back. I wished she never would. Usually at the same time.  

Late in August, I sleepwalked through the discombobulating business of moving my mother and sister into the home they would share with my new stepfather. When I returned to Elm, to make classes, best friend had returned and the apartment was trashed. Like, trashed. Like, furniture missing, things broken, and in my bedroom, walls graffitied, sheets littered with garbage, and  a stuffed bunny, an embarrassing relic of childhood had been hung with a panty hose noose from the overhead light, the word YOU written across its plush chest in lipstick red.

I called her at work. She sounded like a tempest, barely contained, cruel, snide, “I had some people over. Maybe things got out of hand.. I think it would be understandable if you wanted to move out. I’ll be staying, though. I’m not going anywhere. This apartment is fabulous.”

The apartment was fabulous.

I wasn’t going to leave. Neither was she.

I bought cleaning supplies. I tried to handle things methodically. Bed. Carpet. Walls. Things. I swept away shards. I scrubbed at stains. I found notes in my journals, wounding things, scrawled in the margins. I felt unspooled. I worried for second, she’d reached through paper, that I somehow wore her brutal annotations on my skin.

The next day we convened a summit. We both went down a list. It was arduous and complicated. We left it at muttered, half-baked apologies and a stalemate. We each refused to leave.  It’s hard to let go of a great apartment– Chandeliers! Courtyard! Vintage Tiles!. It’s also hard to let go of your best friend, even when she hates you, even if you deserve it.  

I threw the notebooks away. I password protected my computer. I could hear her talking about me through the bedroom door as I tried to go to sleep at night. I listened to music on headphones. I bought earplugs.

Ten days later, Hurricane Fran carved up the middle of North Carolina, I went to sleep in light the exact shade of an old bruise as the tall pines outside beat against the brick walls like they were snare drums. I went to sleep to the sound of transformers exploding. I thought, maybe this is how the world ends.  I thought, that would probably be okay.

***

I did most of my writing facing west at a salvaged library table wedged between the two tall windows on the front side of my bedroom. I used an old Packard Bell desktop, replaced by a Dell in 1998 as a preemptive and hilariously optimistic “graduation present.” I liked West as an orientation in those days. It seemed safer than the Northeast I’d failed to acheive. I dreamed of Northern California. I thought I might be a little in love with Oregon.  I suspected I could move there and scrounge out a life without having to prove myself as I would in Manhattan. I wouldn’t have to be as beautiful or talented or smart. I could work in a coffeeshop and write a zine and see shows and live in a dirty house with some number of dirty young people who wouldn’t care that I hadn’t lived up to my potential, that I’d left a second rate state university, that I’d quit everything meaningful save writing and talking to boys that didn’t want to date me about loud and furious songs.

I finished a first draft of a first novel in late 1996, about six weeks after the hurricane. I took the disk home to Asheville and printed it out on my mother’s office computer. It was a pretty dumb book-150,000 words of cliché, pastiche, hugely romanticized squalor, and poorly edited, barely-post-adolescent rage. But I was twenty years old and I’d finished it

I didn’t tell my roommate, my ex-best friend. We were barely speaking to each other by then anyway. I flew to Portland and spent a week enamored of the rain and the scruffy boys that congregated on creaky front porches and waxed poetic about revolution. I gave Xeroxed copies of my book away to Ivy League and the Smile, who received 750 pages with extreme trepidation. Is this another thing about the kind of weird, unhappy people you hang out with in Mid-Sized Southern City? Is this another thing about how you’re trying to pretend you’re tough?

Yes.

***

After eight months of Cold War, ex-best friend left in May, to study abroad for the whole of the following year. She would not move back to the apartment. I watched her drive away and it felt like the most Pyrrhic of victories. She had not, ultimately, forced me out. I endured.  But I was wholly adrift, terribly broke, and lonely. Stuck in a place I never wanted to be without the sole reason I’d ever gone to begin with.

My writing professor and head of the MFA program asked if I’d mind putting up a poet and her boyfriend for the summer. I didn’t. The Poet had grown up in New Orleans and brought tales of madness and the macabre, a few of which were maybe even true. She dressed like a curvy Stevie Nicks and wrote so earnestly and obsessively of death that it came as no surprise when she said she’d never been to a funeral. 

“The real deal is never as beautiful as you want it to be. Oftentimes, it’s really boring and kind of institutional,” I told her. “On the plus, actual funeral services are often unintentionally hilarious.”

She found this disappointing or upsetting or both. I’d been thinking a fair amount about death too. Not because it sounded beautiful, but because it seemed like an option reasonably left on the table when a life had become as bewilderingly purgatorial as mine. I wrote stories about people affected by suicides and snarked in my journal about Hamlet and rolled my eyes when the poet talked about how her ninth grade Goth boyfriend hung himself with the pull the Venetian blinds in the middle of their Spanish final and looked just like St. Sebastian.

“But he was shot by arrows,” I said.

“I meant his face and body language,” said the poet. “Sad, epicine, sensuous even in death.”

“And he literally hung himself during your Spanish exam? Like, what did the teacher do?”

“She looked on with unfeeling eyes, the eyes of a deadened soul.”

“That didn’t actually happen did it?”

She looked hurt. “It’s a metaphor.”

Whatever.  The poet was a mess, maybe a bigger mess than I was, but she was in graduate school and I was suffering from atrophied will, according to the last therapist I’d seen. I was barely keeping my head above water, according to second-tier state university. I was writing. I never stopped writing.I wrote plays. I wrote stories. I wrote novels. I wrote essays. I wrote letters to friends. I wrote letters to strangers. I wrote my name in the inside cover of the books I finished and the date to remind myself. I wrote in the bed and when I couldn’t sleep, rose and wrote all night, slept all day, skipped all my classes, but went to watch the theatre department rehearse my play.

As long as I was writing, I was still alive.

***

When it became obvious I wouldn’t graduate on time, my mother did not make me send back the new computer that was to be my present. She did suggest I come home for the summer.

I hadn’t been home for a full summer since I graduated high school and the idea at once fascinated and repulsed me. I couldn’t imagine going back to my mom’s house, but I’d also found the longer I lived on Elm, the more relieved I was to be away from it. So I emptied my refrigerator. I locked the windows. I went home, and for ten weeks, I worked for my mother.

I barely wrote that summer, but every night  I dreamed of Elm. And in my dreams, the courtyard opened onto lawn, and wide bay. By day I lived in verdant green and salty sea air, but by night the bay went overcast red, its expanse cut with blinking wires, and the building shook with a commotion beneath. One night, in one dream, I crept around the back of the building, to a cellar full of angry boys with the heads of stags writhing to blistering, wailing music. And I knew that they were okay with me being there, but I wasn’t sure they would let me leave. Now that you know how this place really works.

I wrote the Poet to tell her I thought there were furious stag dudes in the basement of Elm and their nighttime shenanigans might account for why I was so miserable and also so productive there.

“Actual stag dudes?” she asked. “Like pagan gods?”

“Definitely metaphors,” I said. But I think I’m losing my mind.

By the time I came back from summer away, Poet treated me like I was her best friend. She was jealous and exclusionary. I withdrew, deeper into the worlds I wrote by the window. I adopted a kitten. I named him Oscar Wilde. I added more things to the apartment to fill the empty spaces. I began to think it was normal to spend days and days and days alone.

That’s what it is to be a writer. And writing is the only thing I can do. Thus, this is what my life looks like.

Sometimes I’d sit in bed, sleepless at 5am and feel like I would go until my hands would fall off, until I was knocked hard by some external force. Like a freight train. Like the dancer in “The Red Shoes.”

I didn’t even like what I was writing anymore and I bitterly resented the people that did. “They’re all stupid,” I’d tell my dad. “What kind of asshole would even like this shit?”

“I do,” he said. “It’s maybe the best thing you’ve ever written.”

And then I hated him for saying it because it terrified me that it might be true

***

There are two versions of how came to leave Elm. The true one is quite depressing. The fictional one is maybe truer. The simple fact is that my parents ceased to subsidize the joke of my existence there, for both practical and emotional reasons. After a fair amount of tears and remonstrations, I received the gentlest ultimatum in history. And instead of pretending I could meet it, I simply started packing one box of books at time. Stripping the walls of my things, emptying the drawers and closets.

Those last two months, I split my life between the writing and an old wicker chair I’d draped in red velvet, where I sat reading a stack of huge, famously difficult novels, as if passing time in the waiting room of my life. I felt impossibly old and tired. I was impossibly depressed, and it would take some number of appointments with simultaneously frustrated and empathetic mental health professionals before I sorted out that it wasn’t just because I’d maybe been a little in love with my ex-best friend and/or metaphorical stag men in the cellar and whatever they used to spike the boiler and haunt the radiators, filling the most fabulous apartment ever with all sorts of dark magic and that being a writer means constantly trying to navigate the chasm between the real world and the one you build in your head with nothing but adjectives and a few sexy verbs.

At least not entirely.

***

I’m just superstitious enough to think that referring to any day as worst in my life is asking for trouble. I’m also not an idiot. The day I packed up out of Elm, with my mother horrified by how dirty the apartment had become and my stepfather’s conservative brother lecturing me on personal responsibility as he hauled away the refuse of the last four misspent years was not, like, the Battle of the Somme. It wasn’t grand tragedy or even petty tragedy. It was just the day the bill came due for a life I could no longer afford to squander, for both practical and emotional reasons.

There’s an obvious chemical component to that level of despair. You’re maybe nodding if you’ve gotten this far . You’re probably thinking, thank goodness she got help. And you’ll know that I did because, (in full Elaine Stritch), I’m still here, twenty years later. Even though I can’t write like that anymore, for pages, days, hours, like it’s a zombie curse animating an otherwise empty vessel. Some of that comes from age. Some of that comes from the various compromises required for something like sanity, if not always contentment. 

I miss being able to write like that, but I don’t miss being so terribly unhappy. I don’t guess I can have both without significant developments in the pharmaceutical sector. Until then, so be it. I’d rather not write six plays in a week. I’d rather the stag boys in the basement keep it down so I can get some sleep.

The apartment is still there too. Sometimes I google the address and look at pictures. It was for sale recently. They replaced the kitchen floor and repainted, but the chandeliers are still there, the high ceilings, the vintage style.

It’s still maybe the nicest place I’ve ever lived.

There is no power on Earth that would ever make me go back.


[1] An enduring bit of girl’s bathroom graffiti on the first floor of the English department crudely translated the schools’ acronym as U Never Can Graduate.

Randolph, 1994-1995

Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is Part Seven of series. Part Six is here.)

Let’s get this out of the way:

I hated college.

Maybe I was destined to. I’ve spent an adult life (and nearly twenty years, post college living in a college town) trying to work out whether the problem is me or the institution.

Probably me.

Like most of life’s great disappointments, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. College was supposed to be the best part of my life. I had been assured of that since I was a child. I believed that, in college, I would finally discover the people the people that understood me, the classes that would turn my world upside down and fill me with much fervor and curiosity. I thought I might figure out why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do while I am. I thought I might have my talents finessed, by skills honed, and be put on a path toward something great and sublime. In the meantime, I’d spend four years talking all night about philosophy and history and literature with a bunch of people who also wanted to make strange and beautiful art and explore whatever we could figure out to explore in or around our scenic ivied campus. I’d have lots of sex with the sort of boys (and maybe girls, perhaps something neither and in-between) my grandmother would never approve of. I’d probably get into radical politics. I’d maybe start a band. I’d read Ovid in Greek. I’d travel abroad and study Joyce in Dublin and Dante in Florence. I’d study aesthetics and revolution. I’d write novels and plays about both. I’d definitely have weird hair.

By the end of the senior year, the reality of financial situation collided with my fine, but not competitive enough for a fancy scholarship academic record and I was left with a handful of highly unappealing options. The best of which was Women’s College, who liked me enough to offer a generous scholarship and invited me up last minute to tour a campus I’d honestly never believed I’d set foot on. I was wary in my introductory chat with the admissions director. She was so confident I’d be happy as a Women’s College Girl that she smiled right through me noting that I was reticent about single-sex education because my impression of young women en masse was that they “tended to act like a bunch of vicious @#nts.”

“We like diversity here,” she said. “We’d like you to accept the scholarship because we think you’ll bring something unique to campus.”

A terrible attitude? A kind of self-loathing misogyny? A determination to transfer at all costs? I couldn’t work it out. The admissions sent me out to tour the campus with a chubby theatre major. She was funny, brassy, and outspoken in that way that chubby theatre majors are when they don’t want you to think they’re the type to spend hours in the kitchen and the rest of their monthly allowance making cupcakes for everyone they know (but she herself will not eat, because chubby) because they secretly believe they have to provide material incentive for people to like them.  I was also that person, and recognized something of myself in her when she shamelessly took off her t-shirt to show me the scars  from a breast reduction surgery the summer before. “Check out my fucked up tits,” she said, in a way you do when you’re greatest fear is people thinking that you’re a nice, sweet girl with a pretty face, so considerate! Which is shorthand for Jesus Christ, have you ever seen a creature so pathetic, so desperate, so terminally uncool.

I liked her. I thought we might be friends, if I had to make friends at Women’s College. I really liked her room, which was located on the close end of a creaking old colonnaded dorm overlooking the main quad. The ceilings were high. The windows were tall. The floors were old scratched up wood. It felt like a platonic version of a college dorm room. Even if outside looked like the sort of postage-stamp antebellum Virginia that conjured images of hoopskirts and served as continual reminder that the only non-white people you’d seen so far on campus so far were either emptying trash cans or working in the dining hall. Inside, the light was good for reading and you could read yourself anywhere.

“This is kind of the arts dorm, so none of the girls that live here are really straight or, like, normal,” said my still-topless host. “There are a lot of cool talented people in this dorm. Obviously, this is where you’d want to live.”

Obviously.

I was so flattered. Neither straight nor normal. And I didn’t even have to namedrop a single band or shave my head. Then I thought, only at a place this unsophisticated would anyone in their right mind mistake me for cool.

“Tell me the name of the building,” I said. “I’ll put it on my room request form for next fall.”

She beamed and clapped her hands. “Does that mean you’ve decided to come here? Yay!” She opened her arms. I hugged her gingerly because I didn’t quite know what was appropriate  contact with the boobs.  “I know you’re going to love it here so much.”

I thought, well, that makes exactly one of us.

~~

The campus housing forms arrived early in the summer. I filled them out with all the impotent rage I had at my predicament. I wrote the name of the dorm on the main quad under Preferences and then in the section about Roommates, mentioned that I was a baby eating psycho killer, whose interests included painting frescos with bodily fluids and listening to death metal at 4am. My gag reflex is activated by Christians and debutantes. I cannot promise I will not projectile vomit if you pair me with either/both of the above. Satisfied,  I sent it back and waited.

Campus housing responded by pairing me with a girl named Nino from the Republic of Georgia, whose sole contact (when I called to ask if she wanted me to bring a TV) was an answering service in the State of Georgia that ominously promised to forward my message to Nino’s handlers. For the dorm, they’d stuck me not in the dorm on the main quad, but in Randolph, a building I did not remember from my tour.

I cried all the way to Virginia the day I left for college, vacillating between fury and despair. My mother, kept trying to cheer me up. I was inconsolable. “This was supposed to be the best day,” I told her. “Now I just wish I were dead.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said (I didn’t), but I was still in terrible spirits, puffy-eyed, stomach-churning on opening day, when we pulled up in front of Randolph.

The Campus of Women’s Collage was mostly made up of the brick colonial buildings, the afore-mentioned antebellum quad, a series of adorable white houses. Even the new construction mostly came festooned with shutters and cupolas. Randolph was sole nod to the modernism, specifically the Holiday Inn era of modernism. The front entry looked like the loading dock of my high school cafeteria and the inside was a white-washed cinderblock warren of what looked like cheap motel rooms.

Even my mother, so far the eternal bluebirds and sunshine retort to my despair, took one look and said something like,You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” I got out of the car and entered through a gaggle of thin-nosed leggy blondes making arrangements to stable their horses. I received a key to my room and an invitation to an ice-cream social on the central quad by Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike in a scarf with a jaunty fox-hunting motif.  She  told me that my roommate had failed to matriculate.

“So I don’t have a roommate?” I asked.

She gave me a God, peasants look and said, “You’re still in a double. You don’t have a roommate, yet.

Mom and I unloaded the car. I dumped my shit in the double room I had to myself. After Mom left for some parent function, I played Mozart’s Requiem at top volume to drown out the sounds of happiness surrounding me, as I wept in earnest at the realization that I had no choice but to soldier on.

When my mother came back, she found me dressed in some variety of Goth mourning, as if all the years since eighth grade had never happened. She said, “I don’t know what to do to help you, but there’s a girl across the hall that has a lot of shoes like the shoes you like, and she seems friendly.”

I pshawed, but I was curious, and that’s how I met Texas, the first of the four friends I would make at Women’s College freshman year. She and I skipped the ice cream social. I changed out of my black brocade and we cruised around downtown until we found a coffeeshop and heard skateboards and kids talking about punk rock bands. They weren’t the glamorous aesthetes and genius radicals I’d assumed I’d be friends with in college. But they were uncommonly hospitable and generous and nice.  They probably weren’t going to do transgressive theatre with me, but they might keep me sane.  When we returned to Randolph, I felt marginally less suicidal. I still maybe wanted to kill myself, but there were a couple of local record stores and at least five shows I wanted to check out first.

~~

Randolph Hall was a smoking hall at a time in which that was not so unheard of (when I arrived on campus, there was still an old-style cigarette machine in the lobby. It had been regularly stocked until 1993). I can’t imagine that  the building hadn’t burned down, because only places we really had to sit in our rooms was on our beds, and so we all dropped ashes in the sheets.

My Hall (third), also had the laxest visitation policy on campus. By visitation they meant “male,” and I found this humiliating in the extreme to explain to people. Some halls never allowed men. “Like some kind of convent,” I would say to friends, or the boys downtown. “For girls who worry that running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord. Or maybe for  parents worried that a girl running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord.”

We all got a good chuckle. Me blushing, how did I end up here? What did I do in a past life?  In retrospect, I can imagine many scenarios in which a woman might not want dudes on the hall, but I was all wrapped up in myself and not terribly sensitive in those days.

As a result, third Randolph was kind of a party hall. Our RA was basically like, “Be cool and don’t be obvious, but I don’t really give a shit what you do,” and went back in her room to stay with the boyfriend we all thought maybe (secretly) lived in her room.

It was noisy, but there was always alcohol  (never beer, Women’s College Does Not Do Beer, to my neverending disappointment) and pot available. I also had parking outside the front door, which I was technically not supposed to use, but did so often enough that I racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets by year’s end.

Women’s College was a lot like summer camp. There were always activities we were expected to participate in en masse. Traditions. I’d come from boarding school.  I was over it.  Girls came door to door to summon you for mass hikes and costumed rituals and all kinds of bullshit. I wrote FUCK OFF across my white board and after it kept getting erased and replaced with a  smiley face, wrote it again in permanent marker.  

I heard someone refer to me across campus one days an asshole. I was like, Score.

~~

About three weeks into the first month, I went to check my mail for the latest batch of transfer applications and found an envelope from the housing office. My stomach sank at the sight. My sole consolation  in the first few desperate weeks at Women’s College was that I had a room, ugly as it was, to myself.  But now, according to the letter in my hand, my idyll was coming to a close. I had forty-eight hours to find my own roommate or the school would just send somebody over.

I went to find Texas in the dining hall, but on the way in I had to pass through the gauntlet of Student Government Elections. Pretty blondes handing out buttons and leaflets, promising better treadmills in the fitness center  and more low-fat options in the dining hall. One of them got right in my path. She literally wouldn’t let me pass.

“Why don’t you vote? You have to vote.”

 I sighed. “I’m an anarchist.”

And she said, “Whatever.  Just because you don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean you can’t vote.”

It was the kind of exchange I’d been making up to help me bolster my case against Women’s College when people would be like It can’t be that bad, can it? I should have felt vindicated, but all I could feel was regret.

I couldn’t find anyone to live with me, in part because no one hated Women’s College the way I did.  I was depressed and angry. I was bitter and judgmental and zero fun. So I walked through all the blondes in riding boots on the quad wondering which of them would be my doom. Would she go to frat parties? Would she bring frat brothers back to our room? Would she be a Republican?

I was so caught up in my waking nightmare I didn’t notice the tall girl waving at me across campus until she was right up on me. She said she had film class with Texas and Texas had told her about my dilemma. She was having her own version of a housing crisis. She heard I had an empty bed. She didn’t have a horse or a weakness for fraternity parties. And she thought if I knew one things about her, it should be that she was almost expelled from public high school in Virginia for being a Satanist. She thought we maybe should take a walk.

We tramped off over the quad, headed for the fields past the stables, beyond the reach of even the most avid campaigners for student government. She told me a little about herself. She was studying film. She had a terrible roommate, a girl who believed trousers would lead women straight to Satan. “Sooner or later, she’s going to find out about the Satanism thing.” Even though Tall Girl wasn’t actually a Satanist, but she was a afraid of waking up to a prayer circle. Or an exorcism.

“Ordinarily,” she told me. “I’d be all over that. But I’m overloading this semester. I don’t have time for shenanigans.”

We’d been walking for a while. We were well off the edge of campus by that point and into the future. I told Tall Girl I wanted to be a actor/rock critic turned playwright turned novelist, but not, you know, a southern novelist. Tall Girl told me she wanted to become a cult leader, so she could have her devotees sign their property over to her and she could use the proceeds to make gory b-movies about bisexual vampires.   

We were standing in a sun-dappled pasture at golden hour, steps past the kind of ominious NO TRESSPASSING sign that usually implies shooting first and asking questions later.

I asked if we should turn back. Tall Girl nodded to a stack of bricks.

“We could,” she said. “Or, since we’re here, we could build a giant pentagram in the middle of the field. See if we can start a local panic.”

“A satanic panic?” I asked.

She nodded.

I remember thinking, God, this is what a meet-cute must be like.

~~

Tall Girl and I didn’t exactly work as roommates, but my social life improved. I got involved with the theatre department, where I met Boston, who’d end up being one of my very best friends.

Randolph ended up being a hub, my room in particular. I grew to like it in that weird grudging way you end up liking the grumpy old man that lives up the street. After short term, I took Texas home with me for the holidays. Boston called to see if I could get back in a hurry.

“A room opened up in the dorm on the quad. You know, the artsy one. The one you liked. I can move in immediately, but I need a roommate immediately.”

I remember the scarred wood floors and the high ceilings. The topless girl (she’d been studying abroad all year, so I hadn’t seen her). The only time I ever felt for a second that I wanted to be at Women’s College was in that room. But I couldn’t get back quick enough. My car had died while I was  home. I sighed and told  Boston to go on without me. I would only be at Women’s College for a few more months.

I guessed it didn’t matter where I spent it.

Sherwood, 1991-?

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History / Uncategorized

(This is Part Six of a series. Part Five is here.)

At some point in the last three decades, my sister and I became fixated on the geography of Dad’s basement. We know where it starts, at least in a material sort of way, but we’re not entirely sure of where it ends

“Across the street? A couple of miles away? Canada?

It’s a joke, of course, but one rooted in the peculiar reality of the house on Sherwood, a house that makes exactly zero sense to anyone, save perhaps its primary inhabitant, my father.

“I don’t think the basement is actually bigger than the house,” I said, to my sister, though the last few times I’d been over there, I found reasons to go down to the basement and double-check. And though I was  probably right, if any house could break free of its own architecture and defy physics it’s Dad’s. “But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe it’s not where it ends, but if it ends at all.”

“Spooky,” said my sister. “Reasonable, though.”

***

When Dad announced he’d bought the house on Sherwood, we were all kind of surprised. He’d been antsy to get out of Fenner since the Great Beignet Fire of 1991, but we were  dubious about what he’d do with an actual house. Dad was not famously handy or particularly geared toward housework. He’d come from a long line of people so inclined to outsource domestic labor,  his familial punchline to the old lightbulb joke was something like, “Fix a martini and call an electrician.”

Sherwood was a definite fixer-upper. Best case scenario: it was an adorable Arts and Crafts cottage on a significant forested lot just up from the hospital, in a whimsical semi-gentrified neighborhood named after a Sir Walter Scott novel.  Most of Dad’s neighbors had (and would) renovated their own adorable arts and crafts cottages into the sort of homes featured in décor and garden magazines. Worst-case scenario held that Sherwood was a shingled money pit with a kitchen and bathroom last updated during the Blacklist, a floorplan devised by a closet-loving paranoid Dadaist, and a basement that somehow broke the space-time continuum, all situated on way too many acres of kudzu-clogged wilderness.

Our first weekend there, I wandered, amazed, through the house, as Dad explained some its wilder features. The glassed-in study, like an aerie over the side yard, was very cool. The old-style wheeled fire door that opened onto the basement stairs was a real head-scratcher. “Theoretically if you just punch through your bedroom wall it will open,” said Dad, “so you could escape a fire. Cool right?”

I tried to imagine hitting the wall with enough force that I could burst through the plaster, activate seventy-five-year-old wheels, and have the agility to not also fling myself down the basement stairs. I couldn’t. I could, however, imagine turning the plywood cell with book shelves at the bottom of said stairs into a kind of secret hideout. I asked Dad for paint. He took me to the hardware and I indulged every pastel fantasy I’d ever had. After hours of Carolina blue-drenched work, I’d painted a sky and fluffy clouds on the plywood walls, sponge-painted the utility cabinet lemon yellow and mint green, and striped the wobbly stairs. The end result looked something like a cross between a petit-fours and a room for traumatizing hostages. “I’ll probably hang out down here all the time,” I told my father and sister.  

(I never did.)

My sister found her own space, a cubby built into the wall over the stairs, with a ladder/stairwell you could pull down with a kind of vaudevillian hook. She furnished the interior with pillows, blankets and stuffed animals and hung out there whenever we were entirely sure no one would need to get down to or up from the basement. Then, somehow the hook disappeared, and we could no longer open the cubby. Whatever was inside was lost to time. As far as I know, it’s still there, much like the clouds on the walls at the bottom of the stairs and the contents of the drawers in the room where my sister used to sleep on paternal custody weekends. This gives the house a sort of personal history Room of Requirement air. I can always summon up things I forgot I lost and things I never knew I wanted to find. Wondering  about that tie-dyed camp t-shirt last seen in 1992? It might be there. How about a newspaper with a write-up about some ancestor from 1789? Sure. A VHS copy of “Raising Arizona”  I thought I’d misplaced between colleges in the late 90s? Wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning in 2005.

“This is mine,” I said. “Like, this is literally my copy.”

“Right,” says Dad. “It’s the ultimate regift, buddy. Happy Holidays!”

***

On the main floor, Sherwood didn’t have a lot of places to hide. I spent a lot of time on the deck, which was high and vast and appeared to be looking out into the middle of nowhere, even though we were in the middle of town. Sometimes I’d tromp off into the woods, blazing a trail through at least seven different varieties of parasitic vines down the ravine, where legend had it there was a path, but I only ever found a colony of golf balls Dad had driven off the deck and never bothered to recover.

I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, trying to will enough hot water from the stingy water heater to run a full tub. In those days, the door the bathroom was tiled with the kind of green that makes you feel like you’ve been committed to a locked ward inside a Clinique compact. The door wouldn’t shut all the way, so I drew the curtain all the way around whenever I bathed, and tolerated interruptions from my sister because there was only one bathroom in the house.

Unlike Dad’s previous two apartments, Sherwood offered few nearby places for us to go, save the emergency room(where one dad’s dogs, Zellie, famously tried check herself in). My sister and I often didn’t know what to do with ourselves when we were over there.

I was almost sixteen when he moved in, and hence old enough to get myself out when necessary. Dad’s benign obliviousness was a real boon to me in high school, because I had absolutely no curfew whatsoever. After coffee on a Saturday night, if The Countess wanted to drive us to South Carolina and watch the sunrise over Charleston harbor, it was unlikely anyone would notice when I wandered back to Sherwood at noon on Sunday, especially if I brought bagels and a New York Times.

I brought the Deck Party over from Mom’s on a couple of occasions, because Dad’s deck truly was epic. Parties took on a different, wilder character because even with parental supervision, there was never exactly parental supervision. Dad could walk into to a room full of empty beer bottles and noisy teenagers in drag and complain only about the fact that we’d been smoking cigarettes in the house.  I remember one night everyone had left but The Countess and The Dropout. I’d had a bad day and they were trying to cheer me up. When I seemed totally lost to melancholy, the Dropout announced that he would relieve the tension of the moment by taking off all of his clothes.

It was chilly out, early fall, and I couldn’t figure out how watching one of my classmates get naked was going to make anyone feel comfortable and said so.

He disagreed, proceeded to drop trou, leap up, and pose like a Peter Pan in tidy whities on the deck’s rail.  I promptly fled indoors caught in a cringe so overwhelming it threatened paralysis. Dad was in the living room watching a documentary on PBS.

“Everything cool out there, bud?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said and tried to explain how I was going to hide in the bathroom for a while because Dropout was nude and doing ballet on the deck rail. “He’s either going to go full-frontal or fall to his probable death,” I said. “Honestly I’m not sure which one would be more awkward for me.”

Dad nodded and gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds awesome. Have fun!”

***

There came a time when it stopped making sense for me to stay over Sherwood. The custody arrangement my parents had worked out following divorce almost never followed arranged schedule. Schlepping stuff over there every other weekend was frustrating, especially given that since wrecking my first, I no longer had a car. I told Dad, shortly after my eighteenth birthday that though I was happy to hang out whenever, I wanted to just stay at Mom’s, where I had my own bedroom, my clothes, and my social life. He didn’t take it well, which I think I understand now better than I did then, but at the time he and I were really struggling to get along, for reasons much more complicated than his house. I couldn’t believe how angry he was at me.  I’d assumed he hardly noticed I was there unless we were arguing.

 The last time I slept at Sherwood Road was the night before my mother got remarried, about two years later. Mom and my sister had moved out of Griffing and were currently in a hotel suite with Nana. Punk Roommate and I stayed at Dad’s . He wasn’t home—he’d understandably, left town for a few days– and I remember it being very weird for me to be in the house. My sister had, in years since, covered part of our bedroom wall with a collage of 90s era teen magazine ads. My bed from Sherwood had come with me to college, but otherwise everything was very much the same. Comforting and perplexing all at once.

***

I’m a lot like my father. I’m neither handy nor particularly inspired by housework. I’d prefer to have a gin and tonic and call someone to fix things, but my budget only supports so many professionals, so lots of stuff in my house stays broken. I think using a stack of books as a table support is a practical solution. I’ve spent fifteen of my adult years living a place with a barely functional kitchen, a weird basement and  a bathroom door that doesn’t really close.  

I have fantasies about transformations. I’ll watch any before and after television show if they got an old house. Sometimes I think about doing that to my house. Sometimes I think about doing it to Dad’s house. It could be a showplace.

Recently I took a friend, one who has redone a bunch of homes, over to Sherwood. I lead her through the glass aerie of an office, past all the cubbies, down the still-pastel painted stairs and into the basement.

   “This joint is amazing,” she said. “I mean, how far does it actually go?”

“No one knows,” I said. “Maybe across the street. Maybe Canada. Maybe it’s just infinite.”

Griffing, 1991-1996

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is Part Five of a series. Part Four is here.)

The end of Junior Year, the Countess and I were taking our traditional circuit—shoegaze, cigarettes, a self-guided architectural tour through the fanciest neighborhood in town, which was on the opposite side of town from our own, and through which we could (illicitly) cut on the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Countess had a favorite house, a Gatsbyish ersatz chateau, slightly reminiscent of our hometown’s most recognizable landmark, equipped with turrets, gables, gargoyles and garden follies. It was barely visible from the road.  She slowed her dad’s jeep down on the street above, so we could peer through the furred arms of the pines guarding the property. “It would be the perfect house for a form dinner, don’t you think?” she asked.

The Countess was obsessed with hosting a Form Dinner, a Boarding School sanctioned event, in which the entire class was invited to the home of a day student for a meal at the beginning of the semester.  Form dinners weren’t cool or fun or interesting. Hosting a form dinner would not make you cool or fun or interesting. But that wasn’t the point. Form dinners only ever happened at the homes of kids who lived in the Fanciest Neighborhood with giant houses or estates, where parents could afford a catering staff and find seating for sixty students. The Countess hosted parties all time, the kind enabled by absent parents that invariably ended with regrets and the sort of bad liquor decisions seventeen-year-olds make when they’ve already cleared out the front of the liquor cabinet, like  hey guys, it’s either dry vermouth or Manischewitz, which one will get us more fucked up?  Form dinners, however, would not—could not—happen at either of our houses. The Countess found this infuriating.

“I want people from school to come into my house and be jealous,” she said. “I want them to say, look at that gorgeous veranda, and wonder how we got so lucky.”

I wanted to people to come to my house too, though I honestly thought I might be weirded out if they were insisted on calling the porch a veranda. I didn’t want place cards, but to be among some ragged band of unlikely characters with whom I could or set out on a great adventure or pull a heist or start a band or put on a play or create a family. I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend or even really nail down a best friend, in that particularly cruel exclusionary way that adolescent girls pick best friends,  but maybe I could find a reasonably loyal crew to help sail the pirate ship through my last year of high school. If that took throwing a party, then, so be it.

A patrol car from the Fanciest Neighborhood’s private police force sidled up alongside The Countess’s car and observed that we didn’t belong there. “Fanciest Neighborhood has a no drive-through policy, so unless you ladies have some business, I recommend you drive back out to the highway or follow us to the station.”

The Countess sniffed and put the car into gear. I fumed all the way out to the highway. Being a not-rich person at boarding school had proven an excellent gateway drug into class rage. I tried to sell the Countess on righteous anger, because it was a pretty sweet high.  She pooh-poohed my bitching, oblivious to the cops still tailing us to make sure we left the neighborhood, still lost in her own imaginary galas.

“What if we just have a party at my house?” I asked. “I mean, that could be fun, right?”

She scoffed like, At your house? Why would anyone want to come there?

***

Griffing definitely wasn’t a house for form dinners. It had no turrets or terraces or anything a sane person would describe as a veranda. As midcentury tract homes go, it was inoffensive enough. Clean, solid, the décor dated, but safely tasteful like an admissions office or a Talbot’s blazer. The neighborhood was well-located and reasonably desirable. Griffing was fine. It was acceptable. It was far from the worst thing that could happen.

 As a family, though, we’d experienced what felt like a near-Dickensian change of fortune. People, places, things we’d always taken for granted had been lost over the last few years, perhaps irrevocably so. In novels, that sort of precipitous decline would have landed us in a drafty garret, where we’d suffer and scrounge in too-small velvet mourning frocks and pray for better days to dawn over the blackened tenement roofs of an indifferent city.  In reality, we’d just landed, slightly bruised, in a small brick rancher with a lot of floral wallpaper a couple blocks from a resort hotel. It didn’t feel right. How were we supposed to keen and wail and process our grief in a house so aggressively satisfactory ?

Griffing wasn’t entirely short on sympathetic fallacy.  Despite its chipper pink drapes, the house was always dark, on account of being shadowed by a mountain. The inside was damp. The yard was small. The creek in the back smelled like chemicals, which so disturbed my mother that she called up a friend of a friend at the EPA and my sister and I watched guys in Hazmat suitsinvestigate the ditch on the other side of the the deck. I remember thinking, should we be wearing Hazmat suits when we’re outside? Maybe. Several of our pet cats died  on property, perhaps poisoned by groundwater. Our pet spaniel maybe got tumors from drinking out of the creek. We were menaced by garbage-eating black bears, a neighborhood dog that hated children, and the old woman next door, who so feared the dark she installed massive floodlamps around the periphery of her yard, which gave nighttime a kind of prison camp ambience. My sister had nightmares about dying from rare blood diseases. My mother lost her dream job and suffered a slew of health problems. Home was a lot of stress and sadness. Save late night conversations, when Mom and I would sit by the hearth in the den, and talk about romance and dating, which she was experiencing again and I was (at least theoretically) delving into for the first time, my life in Griffing was a foggy stopover between all the ways I found to not be home

Because outside of the house, I wasn’t at all unhappy. I felt kind of guilty about it. While the rest of my family surfed between anxiety and despair, I spent a lot of time  terrified that someone might notice how psyched I was about attending even Saturday classes (a boarding school feature/bug) or the fact I’d joined the school paper and, like, five different choirs.  There is nothing cool about liking high school, and I was just superstitious enough to believe that doing so doomed a person to abject failure at twenty-two (I maybe wasn’t wrong). But at school I had friends. Plural. I had projects. Plural. I did things I liked and talked about things I liked and got moved to tears by things I made with people I cared about.  

I had plenty to be worried about as I looked toward the future. Neither of my parents were in a stable work situation. Mom had a a cancer scare. It was becoming increasingly clear that maybe there wasn’t any money for college even though college, ideally competitive and commuting distance from either Boston or Manhattan, was my raison d’etre, my only imaginable endgame. My school advisors, accustomed to students who never worried about it, met questions about financial aid with blank-faced shrugs.

But, I could put off the worry because this black box Shakespeare thing we’re doing is going to be badass and we’re reading 100 Years of Solitude  and when you sing the ecstatic parts of a 16th century motet in a candlelit chapel on a cold winter’s night with a bunch of nervous teenagers, sometimes it feels exactly like time travel  and all my new friends at school make me feel as brilliant and beautiful and lucky as they are, even though, by all measures, I am not.

Summer, however, was tough. Boarding school meant most of those beautiful, brilliant friends didn’t live locally. There were a handful of other day students that lived nearby—The Countess, Ivy League, The Smile and The Dropout, who’d moved down from Pennsylvania the year before, CF, who I’d had a crush on in grade school, Alice, who worked at the record store. Maybe seven of us, juniors and rising seniors, in a roughly two-mile radius.

I called them after exams, said, bring snacks and meet me on my mom’s deck. I was surprised when they all showed up. Ivy League made hummus. We listened to the Beastie Boys. We hung out for so long that everyone called for curfew extensions, and at the end of the night, we planned another deck party. And another. A regular sequence throughout the summer. Sometimes deck parties would take place at other people’s houses. Alice had a pool. Ivy League had a wide brick terrace, overlooking the lake. The Countess had such minimal parental oversight, we could do pretty much anything there. Sometimes the deck parties loaded into a shitty teenage cars and ended up at Mexican restaurants or a diner out by the mall, or, the weirdo punk rock coffeeshop downtown, where no one cared if you smoked. Mostly, though, deck parties kept happening at Griffing.

My mom was cool with the parties. She never hovered. Sometimes she’d come out and talk to us. She’d listen, offer advice, and sometimes her advice was so fair, I’d come home and find my friends pouring their hearts out to her. She was generous and never condescending. She was with my friends he way she was with me late at night. They loved her for it. I loved her for it.

When my friends were there, the house on Griffing never felt dark or claustrophobic but intimate and warm. And I had one of those slow, dawning epiphanies over the season, as I listened to the growing number of deck party friends talk about their own stresses, sadnesses, hang-ups, fears, families, their own homes, and the people they had pretend to be to survive there. My own tragedies were not unique or even particularly tragic. My family, for all its fraying ends, was not really falling apart. Some of our losses were recoverable. Some of the things we lost, maybe we’d never needed to begin with. I couldn’t host a form dinner, but I could be myself in front of my mother, and know, she’d still love me and accept me, even if she didn’t think purple was flattering hair color. It was just possible that my stupid, boring, suburban home, with the chemical creek and perennial shadows was a pretty sweet joint, all things considered.

***

Around the beginning of the school year, Ivy League and I rebranded our deck party group as the Hypocrite’s Club. It was a joke, loosely related to Dante’s Inferno, and something we read in the New Yorker. Any allusion to old Oxford University history was entirely coincidental (we were precocious, but not that precocious), but probably why the Boarding School administration, anglophiles all, allowed us to become an official campus organization. We added a bunch of new members—boarding students, day students from the Fanciest Neighborhood (including the one who would years later, indirectly lead me to parties at The Countess’ favorite house). We planned events. I could always find a crowd if I needed the noise and bustle to distract me from my own thoughts.  I remember one night in late fall of my senior year, looking at forty people down a long table in a vegetarian restaurant thinking, this is one hell of a pirate crew.

We’d eventually fall apart, as friend groups do. By Christmas, cracks had started to form. By prom, all hell had broken loose. But I was okay, by then I didn’t need everyone around to make me feel comfortable at home. I was home, and in those last few months before I left it for college, it felt like a place worth savoring.

“You know, I could never be around my house, the way I am at yours,” said a friend, a late deck-party addition, just after graduation, after he’d poured out his soul in my living room. “My parents would cut me off and kick me out. I’d lose everything.  I don’t know what I would do. I don’t even know where I’d go.”

Here, I thought, though I didn’t say it. For a time, at least, I think you could come here.

He was headed to Europe, then back to his parent’s big fancy house, then onto a fancy college, and a life, full of place cards and verandas, a life much different than mine. “You know, you’re so fucking lucky,” he said.

 “Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

Fenner, 1991

Family History / Houses / Personal History

(This is the fourth part in a series, the third part is here)

I liked the apartment at Fenner. It was light and airy, with wide third-floor windows and views that made Asheville look like an actual, real deal city in the distance. Dad kept birds, two striped finches, in a cage by the kitchen, and continued to feed and water an escaped hamster, Hamlet, out of a couple of antique Spode saucers by the washing machine long after Hamlet escaped his own cage. I related a bit to Hamlet. After all, I once ran away from that apartment, but that had nothing to do with the place itself.

Dad moved in early in the spring, but I always associate Fenner with summer. I spent hours reading on the balcony, and if rain forced me in, I’d sit in front of the open French doors and listen to the storms rumble over North Asheville. There didn’t feel like much separation between inside and outside, up on the edge of the hillside, on the verge of everything.

We only lived in the apartment on Fenner for about seven months, but the place felt like the wings of the stage between a bunch of big productions . Being a teenager, especially during a period of personal and familial transition, can feel an awful lot like doing a season of reparatory theater. You take a bunch of different roles—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, often, over-the-top–in a bunch of wildly different shows all while trying to maintain a sense of self and a functional working relationship with the rest of the company between performances.

In early July of 1991, I starred in a new show, Furious Teenage Runaway Spectacular. It only ran for one night, but it was a hell of a production. I suspected  it would make waves, so I’d accepted the demands of the role, including a dramatic self-administered haircut and the threat of real punishment. The latter hadn’t come to fruition, but the former was a cross I had to bear for the rest of the season. It had been a convincing look for a runaway, but it lacked the casually glamorous, feminine, effortless aesthetic I’d imagined bringing to my upcoming parts in, New to Prep School, and Holy Shit, y’all, High School!

Mom’s hairdresser had tried to sort me at an emergency salon visit a couple of days after I closed out Teenage Runaway. Afterwards, I sat in the chair, traumatized by my reflection. I worried I looked like a boy (I didn’t). I worried I looked fat (probably). I worried I looked even less like the cross-between-Ione-Skye-and-Helena-Bonham-Carter that struck me as Ideal at the time (impossible standard). The hairdresser who was both nicer and more honest than most hairdressers, put her hands on my shoulders while my eyes welled up at the seeming ugliness own bullshit theatrics had wrought and said, “I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but short hair suits you much better than long hair. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She wasn’t wrong, though it took me decades to realize it. And I never would have admitted it at the time but I liked the way short hair felt in the late summer. And the way it made me feel–cool and brave, like I didn’t have any baggage or any secrets–even though, especially though, none of that true. I remember sitting on top of the table on the Fenner apartment balcony in the aftermath, my head against the porch column, while a warm wisp of breeze unsettled the collar of my blouse and grazed the short hairs on my nape.

It was one of those evenings that makes you feel electric all over, brink of miracles electric. I put down my book and stared out over the hillside below to the downtown skyline just starting to light up against the slow, rosy twilight of mid-July. I figured anything could happen. After all, I’d just had my third real driving lesson and the old R.E.M. song on the Walkman made me breathless. I was not quite fifteen and a half, which is maybe the right age for anything to happen and exactly the right age for believing it will.

***

I’ve always enjoyed waiting in the wings. I like watching the action before I arrive and the feeling of being between the velvet curtains, close enough to the stage to feel the glancing warmth of the stage lights, to hear the rise and fall of the audience’s emotions but hidden enough to still be yourself. I like the tangle of ropes and ceaseless activity and the constant business of people scurrying about. It reminds me of being on a sailboat. Stepping on stage can give you the same heady, weightless feeling as cresting a wave on a blustery day. You might sink. Or you might fly.

No wonder they call it the wings.

***

By the time Sophomore Year opened (to mixed reviews, if I’m being fair), Dad had started to look for a new place. He wanted a house, something that felt less temporary, less of a green room, more of a main stage. I didn’t blame him, but I was sad to go.

I don’t think anyone missed that apartment on Fenner except for me.

Sometimes, out of nowhere, I still feel the electric of that summer on the balcony. It’s the most miraculous feeling, like a memory and a promise all at once, heady and weightless. I treat it as a chance to stop and breathe and run my lines. The curtain is up. The lights are burning. And you never know when you might be called to the stage.

Haywood, 1990-91

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia / Personal History

(This is the third part of a series, part two is here)

It was a big deal when the condos were finished. The building was one of the first fully-renovated, maybe the first fully-renovated residential building downtown. In those days, downtown was a millimeter removed from ghost town, and probably still read that way to most people, save my mother, who’d spent the last five years running a non-profit to convince people otherwise. When she’d moved into her first office, in the bottom floor of a mostly-unoccupied art deco office building, I would sit in the conference room in front of the big old store windows and watch trash blow down the street like tumbleweeds and rats the size of poodles wander up out of a formerly enclosed interior alley under the buildings that the first construction in a half a century had unearthed. God knew what lurked down there. Spiders. Rodents. The ghost of the mean old man that once owned the Toy Store on College Avenue, but hated all children.

Mom would say, “We’re going to revitalize downtown and bring it back.” And I would think, Pshaw! Can’t wait to get out of this dump.  As if there would ever be more places to shop than the bookshop, the hippie store, and the joint across from her office where they sold top hats, lingerie and flamboyant party masks, as if every day required a fresh ensemble for a “Rocky Horror” screening.[1]

The condos completed around the same time that they finished the construction on the cobblestone street. Then the hotel on the corner opened for business. We all oohed and ahed because the street looked gorgeous, even though most of the retail space was empty. The hotel added an attached atrium, which looked like the 1980s version of heaven—all pink marble and skylights and glass elevators and pink-neon-festooned frozen yogurt stand that stocked New York Seltzer.

Mom moved her office onto the third floor of the atrium beside the condos. Her friends started buying condos in the building next door. We all understood the it to be very chic and truly urbane.

When  Dad moved out of the house and into a second floor unit in the condo building, my sister and I were prepped for the place to be swanky, but mostly it was gray. Gray carpet. Gray walls. Gray bathrooms. High gray ceilings. Track light that produced a kind of sad hazy gray light. There was a patio in the back of dad’s unit, with gray and brick walls 8-feet high to discourage trespassers, which gave the outdoor space a real (gray) prison yard ambience.

The first few months at Dad’s new place were a real strange time for everybody. The three of us—my eight year old sister, father and fourteen year old me—had to figure out how to operate in a Mom-less vacuum on weekends. It was hard to tell who was supposed to be doing what. The first weekend we stayed over, Dad looked at me expectantly in the kitchen and asked what we’d be having for dinner. I think I looked back at him in some combination of confusion and mortal terror before our respective stunned silences devolved into a screaming match. My father accused me of being a spoiled brat and I’m pretty sure I told him he was a sexist and that I’m not Mom, damnit. I didn’t even get in trouble for swearing.

Because this argument started recurring, I did my best not to spend much time at the apartment on paternal custodial weekends. Weekdays, I’d crawl over the parking garage wall and hang out in the atrium beneath Mom’s office, eating breadsticks and nachos at the café by the yogurt place with a 9th grader we all called Dino, who also had a parent working nearby. Dino had been to Russia. That made him, in those hazy, barely post-Cold War days, cool and kind of subversive, especially for girls like me who’d recently started to go all a-tingle if someone so much as said the word Bolshevik in my presence. I had bit of a baby crush and after we’d finish our homework, I’d wander upstairs and lounge around Mom’s office smitten until she made me go back to Dad’s. Then I’d usually go hang out at the cathedral or the library until somebody told me I had to leave and return to the gray and my unhappy sister and my unhappy father still sitting in the same chair in the back room, writing in his journal, listening to Paul Simon and “The Fabulous Baker Boys” soundtrack on repeat  

The early dad weekends all fade together, a blur of spats and snapshots. A fair-won goldfish that jumped all the way out of the salad bowl my sister kept him in. A refrigerator continually full of half-eaten deli food.  A sick day I spent watching Mtv and eating a whole roll of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that so troubled my parents (already ashamed and horrified of my weight), I ended up in therapy for it. I eat to feel the emptiness inside, I told them at the time, even though it was bullshit, but better than telling the truth–I’m hungry and bored and fourteen and there’s nothing else to eat here but mustard and brandy—and being accused of having no self-respect.  I woke up every now and then to find homeless men asleep against the grate outside the bedroom window. I’d tap the glass and chase them off before my sister saw. They were harmless, but I knew the men would freak her out. For fun, my sister and I spent hours, playing old classical records on 45 and 78 speeds on Dad’s stereo, dashing around the doughnut -shaped space in the center of the apartment, until we collapsed exhausted or Dad told us to quiet down.

Some Sundays, we’d trot down to the hippie church on the newly renovated cobblestoned street. The minister was a jazz musician. We’d jam out to a funky Nicene creed and participate in sermons on closure where we’d do things like, mold clay and sing “Let it Go” to the tune of “Let It Be” as the psychiatrist father of the most popular boy in my class accompanied us on bongos. Afterward, I hung around for youth group. This consisted of a bagel brunch at a café up the block with several other kids (half of whom also had divorced fathers living in the same gray condos) and my favorite middle school English teacher. We discussed existentialism and camping and “Flatliners.” Sometimes we’d plan field trips to see a Irish folk singers with nice sweaters and crushworthy cheekbones. I don’t remember ever talking about Jesus or prayer, but it was definitely in that youth group that I learned about both  My Bloody Valentine and Patti Smith. So I suppose that counts as ample consideration of the sublime.

I turned fifteen in that apartment. I had some friends over from my class, though to call them friends was a stretch. I don’t think most of them even knew me particularly well. I tried to pick cool, but not too popular, kids, the ones that might be impressed with the downtown apartment, but might not remember that I’d been a pariah eighteen months previous. No one was impressed. It was gray. It was February and thus also gray outside. We watched “Tales from the Crypt” and stood around awkwardly by Dad’s stereo because no one else was as into the “Fascination Street” remix as I was. Several of the kids walked the edge of the ice-topped high wall on the patio. I panicked, internally, at their recklessness, but tried to play it cool. A couple kids went out to smoke in the parking lot. Most of them called their parents and left early. I started to think that Dad’s maybe you should consider boarding school next year wasn’t the craziest idea I’d ever heard.

***

It was just after that fateful birthday party that I went to the bathroom one Saturday night at the apartment  and reached the end of my late blooming. I knew what was happening. I’d read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” when I was  in the second grade, several years before most of my close girlfriends reached their first big adolescent milestone. My mother had always been upfront about sexual education.  She didn’t mince words. She told me that it wouldn’t be a big deal. Then she told me not to hold my breath. “We tend to run late, as a family,” she said.

I went through a few years of feeling awkward about it, wearing a training bra I didn’t need, stocking my backpack with supplies I never used. Sometime around thirteen, I stopped doing even that. My friends had all started and assumed that I as well. I didn’t correct them.  I stopped wearing the training bra I didn’t need and wondered if it were possible that it might just never happen. Maybe I’m not entirely female. Maybe I’ll never come of age. Maybe I’m part-boy. Maybe I can live here comfortably on the border of nothing in particular forever. It didn’t sound so bad to me, maybe even kind of a relief.

So it was not exactly surprising when it finally happened, but a little disappointing and terribly, terribly inconvenient. I’d long since stopped carrying fake supplies. I sat in the bathroom for a while, trying to figure out if I could make it out door of the apartment without anyone noticing the blood (probably), but I didn’t have any money and I was still a bit unclear about the mechanics. Even though I was fifteen, a freshman in high school, this was new, and I had no idea how messy it could be. Like, could I make it across the street without looking like I’d come through a massacre? Would I bleed on everything? My mother was hundreds of miles away. My close friends could not yet drive and were across town.  And I knew, for a fact, my father could not handle what was happening to me. I hollered for my nine-year old sister.

My sister was about halfway through her fourteenth rewatch of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and gave me a blistering gaze when I told her what I wanted. To wit: “Go get some money from Dad. Go across the street to the pharmacy. Buy maxi pads. Ask the people behind the counter if you need help.”

She didn’t like the pharmacy across the street. It smelled like cabbage and old Cheetos and was constantly full of old people who shuffled in from one of the many grand  hotels-turned-senior- housing like pale ghosts in wooly cardigans. The only thing good about the pharmacy about it was its whole wall of hair extensions and weaves behind the counter. That was fascinating. Also they had cokes in green bottles. Did I want a coke?

“Just the pads,” I said. “And please don’t tell Dad. Please don’t tell Dad.”

She sighed and told me to wait. A moment later, I heard the front door close. I sat back on the toilet and started counting the bathroom tiles. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. At thirty, I worried my sister had been kidnapped. At thirty-five minutes, I swallowed my pride and started calling for my father. He didn’t come. So I swaddled my bottom half in roughly a whole roll of toilet paper and waddled out into the hall, jeans around ankles. Nobody was home. I was halfway to the phone, when I heard the front door open and scrambled back to the bathroom.

“We went to K-Mart. The Pharmacy was closed.”  And my sister handed me a large brown paper bag containing what must have been the entire Feminine Hygiene aisle. It was a bewildering amount of products. I unloaded something like twenty boxes into the space below the sink. One I opened, utilized, and escaped.

I slunk back to the gray bedroom, hoping my father would forget I as there. I heard him call my name. I shot daggers at my sister.

She shrugged. “I had to tell him what the money was for.”

When I entered his bedroom, he sat in the chair against the far wall, Iron John propped open on one knee, his journal on the other. He was playing Cannonball Adderley playing “Autumn Leaves” on a boom box.

He looked up at me with something like terror, as he said, in excruciating sincerity, “Congratulations on becoming a real woman, bud. Quite the milestone. Want to hear a poem?”

I didn’t.

Reader: I died. I died, like a thousand times. I wished I could melt into the gray carpet and disappear into the walls. I flushed scarlet.

Dad, also flushed scarlet (genetics!),  thankfully decided against poetry,  and  satisfied he’d done his duty, turned back to his book with all due haste. I took that as my cue. I shut his bedroom door, and behind me I could hear “Autumn Leaves” swell to heavy metal volume. I took Mom’s emergency contact number and probably 5 dollars of Dad’s quarters and fled over the wall of the parking garage to the pay phone in the empty atrium.

Mom’s friend answered and I demanded to speak to her. When I told her the story, she laughed, because it was objectively funny. Then she asked if I was okay (mostly), if I had any questions (no), and proceeded to tell me all about night clubs and record shops in Chicago until I settled down, because Mom knew me better than most people. “Tell me again about the piano on the bar,” I said. “Tell me again about records. Tell me about the guy that looked like Elvis Costello.”

I slunk back to the apartment, somewhat calmed, and stretched out across the bed in my dark, gray bedroom, wondering if this were the end of all things or the beginning. Would I start wanting babies? Would I finally get boobs? Was everything going to change now?

No.

Yes, but a mixed blessing.

Of course, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

***

Eventually the owner of the apartment decided to sell Dad’s unit as a condo. I think we were all a little relieved when he decided not to buy it. I’d miss the incredible freedom of wandering through old empty Asheville, largely unsupervised. I wouldn’t miss the apartment at all.

Some five and a half years later, my mother and sister would temporarily return to Haywood. My stepfather, another divorced dad, then lived in the building. He moved in to the unit directly above my father’s, barely a couple of years after my dad vacated. And the summer after Mom remarried, she and my sister lived with him there while a new house was being built.

My stepdad’s apartment was warmer, more beige than gray, much less sad, and by then downtown Asheville was on its way to becoming an something more like a city—though still a shadow of what it’s since become.

When I came home to visit, I’d walk past Dad’s old door and remember the arguments and the long, boring days. I’d think about being stuck in the bathroom because I worried that leaving a red streak on so much gray was the worst thing I could imagine.

Those were the days.


[1] To be fair, I adored  that store.

Westwood, 1976-1991

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia

(This is the second part of a series. Part One is here.)

The house on Westwood was two stories tall, a pale stucco colonial, built around 1920. It had thirteen rooms, almost all tiny, and a densely flowered yard, also tiny, overlooking a manmade lake.

But to describe my childhood home the way I truly want to describe it, you can’t rely on realism. It exists in a kind of magic space, a liminal, half imaginary realm, with a floor plan that defies physics, on a map that doesn’t exist, populated by legions of invisible creatures, outfitted with secret passageways, portals to the extraterrestrial dimensions, time machines, and a family of rain-negative blobs that lived on the roof named The Deedles. When I dream about it, as I still do, all the time, it feels natural, comfortable to return, but it’s always an otherworldly experience. Like one wrong step could find me stuck under a fairy hill or teleported to Mars via the passage behind the overgrown lilac tree in the backyard. Maybe because I dreamed so much in that house as a child, dreams I remember, and even my dreams had dreams. There was something about the landscape—we had an epic view, a lake below a cresting wave of three tall mountains—and the neighborhood, verdant, full of secret hiding places, eccentric neighbors, similarly imaginative kids, and parents of the generation that didn’t care if you got on their lawn or didn’t come home until nightfall. I don’t believe in God or ghosts or astrology, but to date, I’d be willing to accept that goblins and fauns existed in the periphery around Westwood Road.

What I really want to talk about though is not the amount of flowering shrubs in the yard (secret garden-ish) or the way I wrote secret notes for posterity between the leaves on the abstract strawberry wallpaper in my bedroom (increasingly dark and salacious) or even the absolute perfection of my father’s study, which with tall shelves of books and records , seemed, for a while, like it might contain all the arcane secrets of the universe (fans of jazz, soul, psychology and modernist novels might argue that it did). What I really want to talk about is The Basement.

To start off, basement access was just off the kitchen, not down a traditional flight of stairs, but through the downstairs powder room. Sitting on the toilet, a person would stare down into the gaping black maw of the underworld accessible by rickety wooden staircase, at the bottom of which was an ancient freezer that turned a preternatural blue in the shadows. At some point, someone had outfitted the top of the stairs with an even more rickety louvered door, fabricated out of some heinous 1970s riff on artificial basket-woven woodgrain, from which a thousand knot eyes blinked out of the plastic like a Sears catalog Argus. I didn’t like the door being closed because I’d rather see what was lurking beyond than be forced to imagine it, so I kept the louvered door open, and turned on the flickering, dim basement light. Mom had hung a framed antique print of Mary, Queen of Scots prior to execution, just above the toilet paper, which added to the morbid ambiance. I silently consulted to the late queen while doing my business, hoping she might inspire courage, if not protect me from whatever monsters lurked beneath, until I could wash my hands and GTFO.

My childhood basement was the scariest place I’d ever seen and I spent more of my childhood than most tromping around abandoned buildings, old theatres, family cemeteries, haunted outbuildings, grand old mansions in various states of disrepair, derelict old hotels, and the dark, unvisited corners of a few actual castles. I think I was a pretty brave kid, but we all have our limits. And the basement was basically the worst of all worlds. Dank, fetid, partially unfinished, with a perennial damp concrete floor. There were shelves of ancients jars and bottles half-lit by its one filthy window over and equally ominous worktable, still fitted with rusted tools, all left by some former occupant. There were weird nooks and crannies. A half completed bathroom, unusable, a back door that led to a terrifying vestibule that smelled like death, and then up a mildewed staircase to the darkest edge of the backyard. There were secret holes in the plaster, through which family cats (and god knows what else) could find access in and out. And there was the coal room.

Just thinking about it gives me the shivers. It was in the furthest back corner. A brick cell, windowless, walls still black ancient coal dust, old iron tools in the corner and rusted bed spring propped against the wall like a torture device.. Almost every worst nightmare I ever had ended there. I sleepwalked as a small child, and as I grew older, became convinced that I might one day wander down and wake up there. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Because the washer and dryer were located in the basement, I early on developed a real hatred of doing laundry (persists to this day). I found that it was difficult to be helpful when I was petrified. The basement was also a bit of neighborhood killjoy. With few exceptions, no one, not even the boys who were older than I, would risk going down there, even though it was replete with hiding places. I couldn’t escape the sense of doom, the fucking coal room watching me all the time with its vacant stare and breathing in the distance a death rattly air.

To be fair, our basement wasn’t the only creepy basement on the street, which was full of old houses with secret underneaths. And it definitely wasn’t the strangest. That honor went the next door neighbors, an elderly couple from The Netherlands, who filled their ersatz antebellum mansion with windmills and built a kind of grotto in the basement with mirrors on the ceiling. It was definitely weird, and it was one of those things that got weirder as the neighborhood kids got older and started trying to work out what those mirrors were for, exactly. We spent a fair amount of time trying fi to sneak in and see before the house was sold, when I was about eleven, to a famous child psychologist, who added a vintage pinball machine to the basement and let me housesit while he and the family went to a Jungian conference in Switzerland. For a few glorious days, I was the coolest person I knew. I invited everybody—pretty much the whole school bus– over to play, check out the grotto and the mirrored ceilings and hypothesize about kinks and fetishes in the way that only naïve eleven-year-olds with too much access to HBO and their father’s uncensored libraries can. Ultimately, I was fired from the housesitting job—my first—not just because I let any interested kid wander through the psychologist’s house, but because I forgot to water the orchids and they all died. The real tragedy was that I was never again allowed to play with the pinball machine.

But I decided, coming out of the experience, that perhaps I had misjudged my own basement.  That maybe I might wring an emotion other than pure terror out of the place. I tried to start hanging out down there. It was pretty inhospitable, but I discovered intriguing new things. Like old theatre scenery in the coal room and old Halloween costumes I figured had been thrown away. I found where the cat had been getting into the house at night (and could sneak up the stairs and crawl into my bed ( I never minded, though my mother objected). I found all of my Christmas presents for several years running and got so excited about them I could barely sleep for three Decembers. I found that, no matter how ferociously I begged, it was unlikely my parents would consider outfitting the coal room with a vintage pinball machine.

After my parents split, we lost the house. Dad wanted his cut. Mom couldn’t come with the funds to buy him out. Nana, always a hard sell on anything you actually want, cited the myriad dangers of staying on in an old home full of old wiring, old plumbing, old windows, “and that basement!” Losing that house was like losing a limb or parent. Leaving it, and all that entailed, was more traumatic than watching my father move out.

My mother and sister grieved it more than I did, I think, because I was fifteen and total hung up on all the shit that comes with being fifteen. In the new house, I’d have a larger bedroom. I was closer to my friends. I could walk places, actual cool places. I could have a room that didn’t look like it belonged to a little girl.

A few days  before we left the house, I thought I might exorcise some demons and waited until everyone else had gone to sleep. I slipped down stairs, through the kitchen, past the blank spot on the wall where Mary Queen of Scots, now packed, had hung. I turned on the basement light and walked down the stairs, past the old work table, the shelves, now empty of creepy bottles, past the furnace and into the coal room. I stood there in my nightgown and sneakers on the blackened gravel floor and dared the spirits to come after me. It was cold. It was dark. And I could hear the floors creaking above and the branches dragging their fingers against the walls in the spring gale outside. I didn’t hear voices. I didn’t hear monsters. I wasn’t chased out by ghosts. Somehow that fact made me  unaccountably sad. That it was just me in a now empty room in a house I’d lived in for almost fifteen years, a house I felt like I’d only recently gotten to know, a house, I realized with sudden and terrible certainty, I’d never see the inside of again.

The next family would change the wallpaper with my scribbles. They’d tear down the bookshelves. They’d expand the kitchen over the patio. They’d cut down the lilac tree. They’d repaint all the walls. They would turn my imaginary kingdom into something I didn’t know. A modest house, half-renovated on a not-so-large budget, would become a less modest house. The street I grew up on, full of school teachers, small-time lawyers, professors and restaurant owners would become a street full of actual rich people, who tore down or  built on to the other modest homes and turned them all into houses that cost a half a million, a million, and the neighborhood, in total, would become a place locally synonymous with wealth. They’d probably all redo the basements. They’d probably all have pinball machines down there.

I said goodnight to the coal room and climbed up two stories to my bed. Mom stirred and asked if I was okay. I said I’d gone for water.

The day we moved out, I wasn’t there. I’d gone to a Latin Club event in Chapel Hill.  When I came home, it was to a new house. It felt different. It smelled different even with all our old things, it was like the other one had barely existed at all. I started to unpack and found ample space for my extra books in the basement. It wasn’t bad down there. Partially above ground. Lots of windows. Lots of light. No coal room. No nightmares. Barring a few spider crickets, nothing but empty space and the faintest whiff of possibility. Nothing to be afraid of.

For moment, just a moment, I felt fearless.

Sutherlin, 1976

Family History / Houses / Nostalgia

The house on Sutherlin was a duplex.

My parents had moved there from a small brick rancher, further out of town on Virginia side, up in a neighborhood that wound up the side of a low ridge, from which my mother had a nearly unimpeded view of the starry night sky. She would stand at the window, contemplating the Big Dipper and the vastness of space. And it was there she decided she’d be happier with more of a buffer between herself and whatever lurked in the cosmos if my father were going to work so many late nights at the local paper.

They were both a bit disoriented in those days, recently returned from three years of living in Europe to find themselves in both my father’s borderline feudal hometown and in the middle of the 1970s. My paternal grandmother, a WASP socialite and collector of novelty cocktail napkins, tried to lift their spirits by inviting them to parties. And in Bristol, there was almost always a party. Alas, there weren’t enough gin and tonics in all of Southwest Virginia to drown out the ennui they’d smuggled back from the Old World. But at least, they could move closer into town, and even though it was a duplex, it was in the nice neighborhood—the only neighborhood anyone lives—not counting a couple of outliers in Tennessee and the big houses up the road in Abingdon.

From the upstairs of the house, they could see the back of my grandparent’s home catty-cornered on the opposite hill. Things were nuts up there. My great-grandmother had passed away, leaving a literal estate’s worth of fancy things to be sold or gifted at whim. The grandparents were splitting up, an event decades in the making, which made it a more-brutal-than-usual divorce.

My mother was pregnant with a child she and my father called Tom, short for Thomas Butler Fields, which sounded like a great name for a poet or a lawyer, or maybe both. My parents decorated Tom’s room with a Peter Rabbit motif, which they rationalized could be gender-neutral in a pinch, though neither seemed to have the slightest notion that the child might be a girl. I was, though. A girl. The only one born in the hospital in Bristol, Tennessee the day before Leap Year. And I ended up with a name that sounded less like it should be wearing a tweed waistcoat and more like a bungled translation of Champs Elysees.[1]

 My mother brought me home to the Peter Rabbit room and rocked me to sleep in the chair by the window, from which she watched the neighbors’ cocktail parties, the bitter end of my grandparents’ marriage, the well-heeled parishioners at the Presbyterian Church on the corner, as they gathered after the service to make plans for lunch at the Country Club. Mom wrote in her journal when I was sleeping and described the scene as sweet poison, some concoction that could be ingested satisfactorily for years before inevitable doom.

When my father announced that his newly minted job with my grandfather’s advertising agency had gone a couple of months without a paycheck, my mother took it in stride. There were not a lot of jobs in the Tri-Cities for a man of my father’s particular qualifications, so he took one over the mountain in Asheville.

My mother stayed behind in the house on Sutherlin to pack. Dad called at night from the grand old inn turned half-rotted residential hotel, where I would one day take ballet classes. He looked at real estate in Asheville. He was sure they’d find a good house.

Mom cried the day they left Sutherlin Street, not out of nostalgia or fear of the future, but because she felt like she’d dodged a bullet no more sweet poison. And as she crossed over the top of Sam’s Gap, from Tennessee to North Carolina, I believe she was confident that she’d spared me as well.

I don’t remember any of this. I was seven months old, when we left Bristol. These aren’t my memories, just my version of someone else’s.

I do, however, remember the house. Shortly after we moved to Asheville, my recently-divorced and briskly-remarried grandfather moved in.  I know the layout of the duplex. Where the counters were in the kitchen. The light—or lack thereof—on the stairs. By then the house smelled like my grandfather, which is to say like cigarettes, whiskey, old books, and limes. Sweet poison of another kind, but no less deadly.   I used to wander the halls trying to jog infant memories, but I never felt any sense of home there.

Grandjay moved out years before he passed away, first to an apartment up the hill and then to DeFuniak Springs, Florida, where he’d have cards printed up identifying himself as Pope of. The last time I was in Bristol, several years ago, for a work event at the Birthplace of Country Music, I drove the few blocks out of town and observed the duplex– still very much the same, in a neighborhood still very much the same. It wasn’t a bad place. Maybe not even as bad as I remembered it. Still, I took a second to quietly thank my parents from afar for getting over the mountain and getting me the fuck out of there.  


[1] That’s fine, but if we’re nitpicking, I would have preferred Alexandra. Alexandra Fields is the sort of name that fits a Jazz Age heiress or maybe a drawing room sleuth (perhaps both). I believe I could have solved the crime and probably looked good in a rope of pearls and cloche hat while doing so.

A Ghost Story

Uncategorized

The hotel was gabled stone building, fitted with a conical turret and Gothic Revival windows. We found it on a narrow curving highway, just under the south side of a high truss bridge we crossed accidentally several times because the combination of left-side driving and roundabouts are like kryptonite for my father.

The weather was bleak, even for the Scottish Highlands. We trundled in, dripping, over the threadbare floral carpet. The walls were high, papered over the chair rail in an overgrown baroque garden pattern against a visceral red, and hung with tiny framed prints of Renaissance portraits entirely of pale, terrified looking children.

Dad leaned in, “This place looks like a seedy French cathouse,” he said.

I boggled. French cathouse? Who says that?

The desk clerk appeared. He was young and reasonably attractive, which would have already been suspicious enough if he hadn’t welcomed us in a voice eerily similar to The Count from “Sesame Street.” I expected him to raise a lavender hand and announce Two! Two American Tourists! Ah-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha. Instead, he gave us one room key attached to a bedazzled Victorian murder weapon and and cautioned us about not getting lost upstairs.

“The halls are long and winding. People have a funny habit of getting lost up there.” He raised a pointy eyebrow. “Also don’t forget to check out our gift shop.”

He pointed at a glass-fronted, heavily-carved china cabinet behind us, which was not full of spiders, eyeballs and vials of blood, but hotel-branded mugs and several elderly packages of Walker’s shortbread.

Dad thanked him. We went up the stairs, each step creaking in several tones at once, like a choir of souls squealing in anguish. We passed under an oil painting of an sneering albino child with protruberant eyes and a Elizabethan ruff.

“Scale of one to Get The Fuck Out, how haunted do you think this hotel is?” I asked Dad.

“At least Jack Nicholson wasn’t running the front desk,” said Dad.

“That’s because Dracula was running the front desk,” I said.

Dad walked past a warped, smaller-than-average door marked FIRE EXIT, padlocked, with scratch marks and gray fingerprints all along the edge. The floor beneath was blackened with ash and smoke damage. We wound down half a dozen, increasingly narrow, increasingly dark corridors  to arrive at our room at the dead end beside another ominously marked FIRE EXIT, which opened onto a rainy metal landing with no obvious way down.

I turned on the light switch. Nothing happened. The room was large-ish and peculiarly furnished, two beds, heavy, oversized furniture, ancient lamps that teetered in a phantom breeze.

I went in the bathroom to stare down the clawfoot tub. I turned on the faucet. It sputtered once, but did not issue streams of plasma. “Good news,” I said. “I think I can maybe take a bubble bath later without the blood of the innocent being involved.”

“Cool.” Dad nodded, then noted, reasonably, “But keep in mind, it is still daylight.”

***

This was Dad’s and my second trip to the Scottish Highlands, and coincidentally, our second stay in a cautionary tale. Last time around, the bed & breakfast was externally charming, a little stone cottage with ample gardens, run by a polite elderly woman who sounded like a cashmere cardigan might if it decided to invite you up for tea. But beneath the starched doilies beat a dark and wicked heart. The rooms were cinderblock cells two iron camp beds and a high window that wouldn’t open. Our bathroom was controlled by a bipolar water heater, whose two temperatures were respectively Glacier and Interior of Volcano. Showering required toggling between the two in a mostly futile attempt to rinse in the few seconds of transition between the extremes. This resulted in a fair amount of shouting and jumping around. Throughout the nights, we endured the sound of Dolores’ furious adult son banging down the hallway, threatening to kill people over his cell phone. We’d arrive traumatized to breakfast—a stale toast and weak tea affair, served over a Muzak version of “Rule Brittania” at nightclub volume in a room packed with a probably four-dozen matched sets of terrier figurines. In the corner, Dolores smiled beatifically, stirring her tea in time the music as all  her hollow-eyed, terrified prisoners considered whatever horror she had cooked up next.

We survived Dolores, but the experience had left us as wary of gingerbread cottages as Hansel & Gretel after a camping weekend. On the plus, Dad was more open to staying at actual hotels, vetted by multiple sources, and not just offhandedly recommended by  Dad’s ex-girlfriend’s sister who went to Scotland in 1987 for a Wiccan jazz festival. We tipped into luxury. In fact,we’d  come to the haunted hotel by the loch from Gleneagles, a five-star resort, where Dad fulfilled a lifelong dream of golf while I’d sat around various hotel pools and bars, surrounded by monsters of less supernatural provenance—gym rat hedge fund managers, jowly Trumpists and Brexiteers, and obliterated bleach-blonde Trophy wives that projectile vomited brunch bellinis all over an impossibly posh pink powder room while yours truly stood, horrified, at the sink (that really happened). I’d been both relieved and disappointed when we decamped for less swanky environs, eager to venture away from manicured golf courses and well-tended garden paths, and set forth on the road to wilder landscapes and less apocalyptic breakfast room chatter.   

***

The bar was empty at 6:30pm, which felt like an ominous note on a rainy Friday evening in the Scottish Highlands, but good for us, as we were able to secure a table beside a roaring fire to watch the sympathetic fallacy blow in over the loch.

The bartender, a pale young woman with an extravagant amount of black eyeliner asked if we would like to make dinner reservations.

I looked around the empty pub, the vacant dining hall, and asked, “Do we need them?”

She nodded and poured me a Guinness. I was pretty sure I hadn’t even ordered yet, but, “On the bonus, our vampire bartender not only reads minds, but respects my taste,” I said to Dad.

Dad looked out over the water. From his side of the table, I imagined he could make out the close edge of the bridge, but, everything else—the far side of the loch, the road up into Glencoe, the lights of the village—were disappearing behind a great wall of obliterating fog.

I posted something witty about the hotel being haunted on Instagram. A friend wrote back: 

Oh Snap! That place is totally haunted. It gave me such bad nightmares I couldn’t sleep. Good luck!

Great, I thought. That’s not at all going to keep me awake tonight.

“We’re 100% going to get eaten by demons tonight” I asked.

“Don’t be such a worrywart” said Dad, as an audible groan registered from the fireplace. “I haven’t even seen Jeremy yet.”

“Jeremy?”

“You know, the guy” he said, making a stabbing gesture.

“Jason?” I asked. “From Friday the 13th?”

“No.”

“Jack Nicholson in The Shining?”

Dad shook his head.

“Jack the Ripper?”

“No, bud, you know, Jeremy with the mother and the shower.”

“Norman Bates?”

“Exactly what I said,” said Dad, looking up as the vampire waitress appeared with two bowls of soup.

“For a snack,” she said.

“This looks terrific,” said Dad.

I watched him have a couple bites. When he didn’t die, I tucked in, thinking, Jeremy?

***

When I was about eight years old, I spent a season convinced that the dark space of wall across from my bedroom door was a gateway to an underworld carnival (“Scarborough Fair,” in point of fact, which I misheard as the place “where the dead live and die”) that opened after midnight and let pass a wicked cadre of spectral evildoers intent on dragging me back to hell. As an easily distractible, mostly secular child, with psychology-obsessed, spiritual, but not religious parents child I had no real concept of hell, save what my friends told me. And my neighbor Seaneen said that hell was pretty much just like an amusement park for torture. “They have a merry-go-round that peels your skin off,” she said. “It’s in the Bible. You’re probably going there, by the way.”

Even at eight, I knew this strained credibility. I didn’t even believe in Santa Claus, for Christ Sake.  A teleporting death carnival based loosely on a Simon & Garfunkel song? I could already hear my mother’s exhausted sigh, her Alison, seriously.  But what sounds ridiculous in the light of day can be very convincing when the bathroom door shadows the wall just so on the dodgy side of the wee hours. And all the superstitious woo-woo that, no doubt, comprised 80-90% of my genetic profile had instilled in me a rock-solid believe that if I told anyone what I was afraid of that it would come to pass, so I kept quiet and sat rigid, eyes wide open staring at the wall until dawn.

Eventually, Mom broke down my reserves and got me to admit to the whole portal to the undead thing. We had a good long metaphysical discussion in the mall parking lot, in which clarified the following:

  1. “Hell is a place that is perhaps a metaphor where some people believe that bad people go after they die. But as I said, probably a metaphor. Do you know what a metaphor is?”
  • “Ghosts are not real. They are way people channel their fears, anxieties, lack of closure, grief, etc. They are real only if you want to believe they are real, otherwise they’re just a trick of light and a lot of useless psychological baggage.”

Mom’s case was compelling. It neatly dovetailed with my long-held suspicion that, among other things, Seaneen was completely full of shit. Hell probably wasn’t real. Ghosts almost certainly weren’t real. And though Mom certainly didn’t intend it, my faith was foundationally eroded in fairies, witches, demons, Jesus Christ, unicorns, werewolves, God, Satan, and astrology, as well. It was a hell of a day. I set forth on the path to godless, blasphemous heathen armed with some bitchin’ new literary terms. And I’m pretty I got a hairbow and an Esprit sweatshirt to boot.

All of this is to say, I don’t believe in ghosts, at least outside of the whole post-colonial, Southern ghost-haunted landscape as metaphor for the history we cannot escape definition of ghosts. But having spent an adolescence drunk on  dumb vampire novels and black eyeliner, I like to hedge my bets. I maintain a veritable pantheon on her mantle despite long-held certainty that the atheists, though boring as all get out, are probably right. I frequently mistake rocks for phantom towers and dead trees for ancient amphibious gods when I go for a run in the park. Sometimes I go to desert for a wedding and end up talking to poems. And it’s been a rough couple of years.  I’ve been sick a lot. I was not in top form—physically, emotionally, financially—when I landed in Scotland. On the train between Edinburgh and Stirling I’d picked up a chest cold, that left me, three days later, hacking through the highlands like a tubercular chain-smoker. Things I could typically brush off with a smile and a quip felt threatening. And everybody knows, the person who dies first in a horror movie is usually the guy that says, “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

 I didn’t want to be that guy.

***

After dinner, the vampire bartender poured me a whisky, intuiting my preference for peat. I spent some time in the empty downstairs parlor, trying to discern prophetic warnings in the sounds of the walls settling around me. We’d spent part of the afternoon enduring the fierce weather in Glencoe and I reflected on its mythic scope and brutal history. It was the guests, not the hosts, who’d famously been the murderers in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t sure whether the ghosts present were inclined toward any massacre-related karmic reprisals. I didn’t think so, but assured the chattering fire that I wasn’t related to any Campbells, just in case.

I found Dad upstairs on the sofa, watching a late period “Die Hard” sequel and eating a box of shortbread he’d stolen from Gleneagles.  I announced that I’d be taking a bubble bath.

“If I’m not out in an hour, call an exorcist,” I said.

He gave me the thumbs up. I stoppered the tub. The complimentary bubble path purported to be “Purple Water”-scented, which sounded like either a bad translation of something innocuous or the sort of thing you’d find at a Superfund site. Whatever the case, it smelled like a place you’d buy incense and Lisa Frank unicorn stickers in 1986. So, nostalgia.

I took a deep breath and stepped in. The floor groaned theatrically. I thought, this would be a hilarious way to bite the farm. With my head propped against the ceramic, I could feel a tremor that seemed to grow more insistent and take on the character of language if I moved any part of my body. It took me about five minutes of sitting frozen in terror before I worked out that it was the sound of the overflow drain. But by that point the pull flush on the toilet was swinging in an invisible breeze and the light over the sink was flickering, so I figured I should cut my losses before I accidentally summoned Cthulhu or something.

I crawled into my bed and turned out the light,  as Bruce Willis hollered from the front of the room. I tossed and turned. I had headphones, but couldn’t settle with the strobing tv light. After an hour, I rose and found Dad sitting straight up on the sofa, but snoring. I turned off the movie and crawled back into bed.

In the silence, the shadows grew. A silvery light shivered down  from the window above my bed, catching the angular ridge of the witch-hatted mountains just to the southeast. I closed my eyes. I heard my own ragged breath. Then I heard the steps and the scratching. A long step. A handful of frantic scratches. A long step. A scuttle of frantic scratches. I sat up carefully, I must be imagining this, but from beneath the crack of the door, I saw an unmistakable shadow. I thought about those ominous scratches on the outside of FIRE DOOR. And I knew those scratches were coming for me.   

I considered calling out to Dad, but I didn’t want to draw attention. I didn’t want to make any sound. I didn’t want to open the door. I reached over and grabbed the hotel phone and found that it was not connected to anything. Scratch. Scratch.  I made joking plans to ask the ghost about underwear and birth control. Scratch Scratch. I made desperate plans throw things. Scratch Scratch. I made cowardly plans to hide under the blankets. And then, as quickly as it had begin. The shadow moved away. The scratching ceased. The ghost had moved on.

And somehow, despite it all, I finally fell asleep.

***

I woke at dawn, showered quickly and left Dad in the room when I went down for tea. Outside was dreamy pink, a landscape so exquisite it bordered on trite—Maxfield Parrish meets The Hudson River School. I stepped out into the morning. It was cold and wet, the fog rolling down down the ridges. My cold was worse, but I didn’t care, because some things are beautiful enough to make you forget all the bad stuff. I walked across the road to watch a rainbow resolve over the loch until I started to feel the wet ground through my boots.

I told dad I’d wait for him for breakfast, so I went in the parlor, poured some tea and sat in front of the fire. As I sat, I heard a family noise. A step. Scratch Scratch. I froze. Certainly this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in daylight? Not with the inn stirring and the smell of coffee and bacon and woodfire in the air. Scratch. Scratch. I looked toward the door and saw Dracula from the front desk staring in at me. He opened the door and in came the spectre, a small black and white cat with extravagant whiskers. He plodded over the carpet, sat politely at my feet, and without encouragement, jumped from the rug onto sofa beside me.

“That’s Julio,” said Dracula. “He likes the fire in the morning. Do you mind?”

I did not. Julio was quite friendly, very soft. “He’s adorable, I said, because he was.

“He’s a good hotel cat. He has the run of the place.” Dracula smiled, a warm, extremely human smile. “Would you like some more tea?”

I shook my head. He shut the door. Julio nuzzled my hand.

I thought, you, you were outside the door last night.

I said, “Sorry I didn’t let you in.”

He purred. Which I took to mean, No worries. I had a total blast freaking out the tour group ladies in 112.

***

Dad and I spent the day wandering the glen. Theoretically together, but experienced individually. That’s how our trips are. We share details over dinner later of places the other never saw, me half-listening to the synopsis of his golf game, or the exhibit he studied over for hours. Himself visibly drifting off during my breathless recounting of  all twelve miles of history and architecture I managed between curries and cocktails. Most of my travel pictures of dad are of him sitting across the table in pubs and restaurants, distracted, sometimes bemused.  His pictures of me are captured from behind, a semi-recognizable blur another quarter of a mile up the side of a heathered glen, or a faceless, rumpled traveler on a rainy sidewalk caught at her least forgiving angle.

We returned the the inn that night, again exhausted and soaked with rain. I let the bartender pick an ale for me and returned the parlor to find Julio waiting by the fire.

My sister called from the US.

“I dreamed about you last night,” she said. “I dreamed you got engaged to someone whose last name was Quinn and didn’t even tell me until you decided the hold the wedding in that haunted hotel you’re staying in. Crazy thing is, in the dream, the hotel wasn’t that scary.”

I reached over to stroke Julio and heard a family with children come laughing down the stairs. Dracula poked his head in the glass door to give me a wave and confirm that he’d gone ahead and made us a dinner reservation in the dining room.

“The hotel is not really scary at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m starting to find it sort of whimsical.”

I saw Dad coming down the stairs. I gave Diego a last pet and headed for the lobby. I hardly noticed that the lights flickered and the gaze of the portrait over the fire seemed follow me out into the hall. I barely even heard a whisper, soft as cat paws, saying something that was almost, not quite, but maybe my name when the door closed behind me.

The State I Am In

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It begins at the end of August 2019, the week before Labor Day. I have returned bedraggled, overstuffed, feeling old and tired after the second of the three music festivals I committed myself to this summer. So grossed out by my own indulgence, I make a spreadsheet labeled ATONEMENT, which I will use to get my life in order, tracking exercise, food, money, all the things that seem to be spiraling out of control, and it must be my fault. It simply must.

Two days of vigorous exercise and healthy eating in, I experience a twinge in my lower back, a twinge that feels like a fever ache, but that sometimes blossoms into something literally breathtaking. I have pinched a nerve, I think. The new exercise regime, perhaps. I’m sleeping crooked, rocked by anxious dreaming because of all of my sorry habits, my misspent days.  I take Advil. I try stretches. On Friday night, I have a friend over. We drink fancy gin and tonics on the porch, the pain subsides with alcohol, but flares up again with sobriety. I go for a long walk the next morning, which improves things, and I go to a party that after, that involves the screening of a movie, pizza and a small slice of chocolate cake. I partake but can’t sit still without it hurting. I keep standing to stretch.

My friends drive me home. I arrive at my house around 7pm and promptly fall asleep, which is weird for a night owl like me. I rouse at nine. Groggy, on a whim, I take my temperature. It’s high. Because I am still incapable of so many things, I call my mother. “Should I go to the hospital?”She says yes. I ask my friend and new neighbor across the street to drive me. She kindly obliges and waits for me in the waiting room until midnight. I send her home. I am in a sick bay in the Emergency Room alone amid the wailing, coughing, vomiting and arguing. They do a CT Scan at 5. I will not get a diagnosis until eight am.

They tell me I have diverticulitis, thought I have almost none of the symptoms. I flinch at the name, because it’s a thing I associate with older people. Am I an older person? Mom tells me not to worry. She’s had it. My grandparents have had it. Her friends have had it. They all had it in their sixties. Does this mean I am an older person?

The admit me and hook me to an IV. I reject a passel of drugs they have prescribed but the nurses tell me I don’t need—blood thinners, pain killers, laxatives, some plastic contraption that I’m supposed to periodically blow on—because I feel okay. By end of day, in fact,  I feel fine. Aggressively fine.  I expect to be discharged. They switch me to pills but keep me another twenty-four hours. I pace the halls of the now empty ward  in sneakers and gym clothes on Labor Day. No one can figure out why I’m still there. The nursing staff tells me the doctors are crazy. The residents—they’re all residents, a dozen different—can never remember which patient I am–Are you the diabetic? Are you here for Lyme? Pancreatitis, right?—let alone give me a reason why. The nurse lets me shower downstairs because there’s no shower in the acute ward and I’m not even remotely acute anymore. I spend some time hanging out in the courtyard at Starbucks with a pass glued to my shirt indicating that I am allowed to be there. The sun feels like freedom. My mother and I try to make the best between worry and rage. My friend, a nurse, comes to visit, says, “Holiday weekend. Teaching hospital.” Like it’s a tagline for a horror film.

I blow up at a resident, who can’t find my file, but won’t disconnect me from IV, despite the fact that it’s only giving me saline fluids and I’ve been drinking water all day because I have nothing else to do. Mostly I just pee, which is exercise because the bathroom is at the other end of the ward. I tell her “I feel like the fucking Count of Monte Cristo.” She doesn’t know who that is.

My mother spends the night in the chair because she’s afraid the doctor’s will make some other seemingly arbitrary call overnight.  

I am released with advice that my own gastroenterologist (I was never allowed to see a gastroenterologist in the hospital) views as dubious. I look at my chart. They have entered a weight–they weighed me on the bed– that is at least forty pounds more than I weighed before I came in. It’s a small thing, but I am human and thus weak and vain. It feels cruel, arbitrary and irresponsible I view it as the final fuck you.

My dad texts. Asks if I’d like to go to Scotland in a few weeks. I start crying, even though I think there’s less than a 50% chance it will actually happen. Can’t bank on any possibility. Incidentally, I don’t have enough money in the bank.

I get back to my normal life. Back to exercise. Back to the ATONEMENT spreadsheet. I can’t drink on the antibiotics they gave me, so no worry there. I watch my diet. I start training for a hypothetical 10K, maybe a half marathon. I do sit-ups. I lift weights.

A hurricane comes through. I use that an excuse to skip the first night of the third music festival I’ve bought tickets for, but I head to Raleigh for the rest because I can’t figure out how to sell my armband. I walk around in the hot summer heat. I worry about twinges and pains because it seems like anything can happen to me. I’m terrified of going back to the hospital, what if they never let me out? I’m terrified they missed something, they misdiagnosed. I’ve always trusted doctors. I don’t trust those doctors.

Music festivals sober are weird, but I have a milkshake and slow dance with myself to Raphael Saadiq. I see Chvrches in a field full of exuberant young people and Cate Le Bon among a crowd of respectful, less young people. A guy wrapped in a Welsh flag heckles Gruff Rhys in Welsh. It’s whimsical.  I come out of the weekend okay. I take long walks.

On Monday, I see my OBGYN, who adds that things are growing inside my ovaries. Nothing to worry about. Yet. But might account for some of the discomfort. I have neither the time nor energy to worry. I don’t really need my ovaries. I don’t want children. I just want to put off menopause because I’ve heard it kills your sex drive and I like having one of those, even if it often leads to disappointment and heartbreak.

She puts me on drugs for the side effects caused by the antibiotics I am still taking. I am becoming familiar with the pharmacy techs. They know me by name.

My sister comes down to visit. She takes me to see Kacey Musgraves, where we are surrounded by a lot of shimmery girls in sequins and cowboy boots on a starry, July-hot mid-September night. About halfway through the show, I become convinced I am getting sick again. I press on my stomach to see if I can find sore spots. I can’t tell if I’m imagining them or not.

Dad calls to say he’s booked the hotel and the flights. We are actually going to Scotland in three weeks. This is fantastic news, though I’ve little time to prepare. I scramble for a decent raincoat, new shoes, fall clothes. It’s still almost 90 here.  I haven’t budgeted, my credit cards are still mostly maxed because ATONEMENT, and I’m leaving for New York City in four days on a previously booked trip. I love Scotland more than most places. I mean what are you going to do, not go? I take a deep breath. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight. “It’s how to keep yourself from freaking out,” my sister told me.

Three days after my last antibiotic, my system is cleared enough that I can drink again. I have a cocktail at book club and three days later fly to LaGuardia to see my best friend. I feel twinges all the way, little things feel wrong. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t.

I tell my friend, “I’ve been under the weather. We should take it easy.” She agrees. But we drink too much that first night, because the wine, the food, the cocktails, the twilights are better in New York. I wake up at 4am with a headache and the first wave of a hangover.

We spend the next day in slow motion. I feel woozy. We go to the movies. We meet friends for dinner. I get a manicure—black, because we’re seeing Nick Cave over the weekend—and a chair massage. Little things feel wrong. I tell myself  I’m overthinking. I’m anxious. I’m tired. I ate something wrong. I drank something wrong. I did something wrong.

Saturday, we go into the city, wander around Central Park on a summery September day. My back hurts again. I try to ignore it. We watch the German parade and visit an exquisite French bookstore. We cross the Park to the Upper West Side, eat cheese, drink wine, watch people richer and younger than us act like they run the world, which they probably do. I go to the bathroom to press on my stomach. Does it hurt? Does it only hurt because I’m pressing?

I tell myself I feel fine. Maybe I do. It’s a rosy dusk. We run into my neighbor, my friend, the one that drove me to the hospital, just across the fountain at Lincoln Center. We talk about the Upper West Side. I think about how, for a moment, a million years ago, I wished I would be good enough at any sort of performance to study at Julliard.

Nick Cave is great. We leave transfixed. We ride the train back to Brooklyn, and I feel weird, but not like, super weird, so we go for a nightcap at this dive bar around the corner from my best friend’s apartment. I press on my stomach under the bar and crap out halfway through my cocktail.

The next morning, I feel like death. Pale, shaky, nauseated. I didn’t drink enough to have this kind of hangover. A bug? Bad cheese? Has the diverticulitis come back? Has my colon ruptured? What is wrong with me? But I dress and we meet friends in a sauna-like coffeeshop by the train because we are headed to Rockaway. I can’t stomach food, can barely handle water, but we mosey over to the beach because the weather is perfect, hot but not too hot, breezy but not to breezy. Not a cloud in the sky. We stake out a spot. My best friend’s friend has brought a picnic, but I can’t eat any of it. I don’t want a drink. I don’t want a beer. I lie back on my towel and feel the sun. I stand in the surf. It’s chilly but bracing in a good way and the ocean always makes me feel better. Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight

After a while the cops come through, two middle aged people in dark polyester, staggering through the sand in boots, ordering people out of the water. “They ocean is closed,” they tell us. “Closed until spring.”

Everyone ignores them. How can the ocean be closed? As soon as they walk on, children scurry back out into the waves.

We return to Brooklyn. The train runs low by the expanse of water and it makes me feel like I’m in “Spirited Away.” I think about that instead of the aches and pains.

Back at my friends, the waves of nausea come back. The back pain. The stomach ache. On the way to dinner, I tell her finally, “I am maybe having an anxiety attack about my health. I don’t know what’s wrong.” She is sweet about it. She asks if I want to go to urgent care. I say no. Halfway through dinner, though I cannot eat. We go home. I take to the sofa, sweating, in pain. I’ll just go to sleep. I’ll be better tomorrow.

I’m not, but it hardly matters. It’s my last day in New York. We have things to do. The pain my back is gasp worthy, but I manage to go shopping, utilizing a variety of semi-public restrooms in lower Manhattan. I legitimately feel like shit, but I insist on a walk to Orchard Street, because it’s my favorite street. On the way down, to distract myself, I tell my best friend a fictional story about New York  I’ve been telling myself since I was fourteen. It involves dance hall girls, mob bosses, Gilded Age architects, immigrants, artists, and a whole metropolis full of romantic cliché. She lets me and telling it makes me feel better. Which ends up being the model for the rest of the day. At 9pm, I say goodbye to the city on a rooftop beside Brooklyn Bridge, warm breeze on my face the boats  on the East River flickering below and the skyline glowing like a vertical galaxy.

My flight is, of course, delayed. I curl up in a chair at the end of Terminal B with a cup of weak tea and a journal, because I no longer have to pretend I feel okay in order to have fun. I call my mother like a child.  Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight .I get home during rush hour. I cry at my car because no one can see me because I feel bad and I am scared by how bad I feel.

At my house is a poet friend of mine and his wife from New York. They are staying with me for three nights on a book tour. I have no ability to entertain and my house is a disaster. They say they don’t care, but I do, and it bothers me.

On the upside, my ATONEMENT chart looks great. I’ve barely eaten in three weeks, save one night in New York, I’ve been sober for a month. Sure I’ve spent a bunch of money and I may end up owing the hospital a mid-range car/reasonable down payment on a house, but in trying to get my mind off of things in New York, I walked about eight or nine miles a day. Doing great, I think. Maybe if I’m not dying I can get back to work on training for the hypothetical half-marathon.

My doctor sees me the next morning. “It’s maybe a bug,” I say. But he orders blood work and the indignity of a stool sample to be collected at the house with houseguests in residents and delivered back to his office before a hair appointment. I do not miss my hair appointment. Because much like the beach, Orchard Street, and the view of Manhattan at night from DUMBO, haircuts are one of my great pleasures. At 4pm, the doctor calls to say I have a bacterial infection I probably picked up in the hospital at the beginning of the month, allowed to colonize because the antibiotics I took wiped out anything that could fight it off.  I Google it. It says, “Frequently Recurrent.” It says, “Nightmare Infection.” It says “25% of patients never really get better.”

I go on another round of antibiotics. I tell the doctor. I think I’m going to Scotland next weekend. He says he thinks, he thinks, I’ll be okay.

I am less sure, but like, it’s not like I’m not going to go.

The next morning I go to the hospital for a follow-up with a few of the thirty-five distracted residents in the trauma ward. I see a cute Swiss resident, maybe thirty, that I’ve never seen before, and the attending.  She’s is pretty woman in scrubs, who spends the entire visit texting with a phone covered in a sparkly rhinestone case. I have never seen her before either. She tells me she thinks I should have colon surgery because I’m young and healthy and I might get sick again. “You wouldn’t want to be inconvenienced by antibiotics down the line.” The surgeon is smug, sure that I’ll agree. I ask if the surgery has risks. She reiterates that there are “kind of major risks, but as long as everything gets reattached right, you’ll probably be okay.” I tell her I’ll talk to my gastroenterologist. She says, “I mean. I get that this is super aggressive, elective surgery. I would never recommend it if  you weren’t otherwise healthy and young.  We can schedule you whenever. Probably end of the month even. You’ll only need a few months of recovery time, unless there are complications. “

Yeah but what about those complications?

I leave rattled, gobsmacked, terrified. I sit in the parking deck, trying to suss out what’s real and what’s crazy. I call my mother like a child. I cry. I come home, do a bunch of work and end up hosting an impromptu gathering with the poet, his wife and another couple. It’s fun and takes my mind off, even though I’m exhausted and the house is a mess and being a less than perfect hostess is the greatest of all sins.

By midday, the next day I am finally without houseguests. I decide to take a walk. Five miles. I make it three and call my mother. She’s like, “Are you crazy? You have a serious bacterial infection.” I told her walking usually made me feel better, and hey, I’m not running. I go home and fret because everything hurts again. I eat chicken broth and crackers. I get on the scale. I’ve lost 18 pounds in a month.

That night, exhausted, I try on my skinny pants. They fit. I think, super effective diet. I think, totally not recommended.  I look at myself naked in the bathroom mirror to see if I can tell I’m skinnier. I can’t. But my lower abdomen is polka-dotted in greenish/purple circles the same size a finger prints. I realize they are finger prints, from all the times I’ve pushed there to see if I feel pain.

I consider, not for the first time, that I am losing my mind.

Thus begins a run of crazy dreams. I toss and turn at night with a ferociously anxious stomach. I dream about murders, suicides, dead loved ones, missed flights, job loss, bankruptcy. In one dream, I try heroin. In other dream, I try heroin with my fourth-grade teacher while sit on trash bags full of unpaid bills. I think, not even subtle.  In one dream, I miss a train and end up at a Nazi rally in my hometown square.

Inhale count of four. Exhale count of eight.

I google side effects of the drug. I abuse the patient portal at my doctor’s office. People try to assure me it’s normal. I believe them but don’t believe them. I thought it was normal before. How do I know?

I update ATONEMENT. Toast. Chicken soup . Tea. Like if I put in enough entries, I may not be healthy, but at least it won’t entirely be my fault. I’m working on it. I’m trying to be better.

My mom comes for a night on the way back from taking care of my 93-year-old grandmother. She takes me to the mall to suss out how bad I feel, because that’s the way my family operates. She thinks I’m better. I think I’m a wreck. She asks, “Do you think you should postpone the trip? I think your father could postpone the trip.”

I tell her no, because it’s a good thing and I need a good thing. I’m afraid postponement means never. I’m afraid postponement means I get something worse, something more horrifying, more debilitating. I think about the doctor. You’re young and healthy. I’m never going be as young as I am now again. What if I’m not as healthy?  I tell mom, “I’m going.”

I have the doctor call me in  another round of antibiotic, just in case it recurs. I consider finding religion, but which one? I still kind of lean toward the Greeks. That’s Hermes, right? You pray to Hermes for a cure? I always liked Hermes. He seemed like less of a dick than the rest of them.

So this is where it stands. I leave the country in 48 hours. I’m excited. I’m a wreck. I’m afraid. I’m hopeful. I want to feel better. I want to feel better for long enough to enjoy something for a few days. I want. I want. I want. I sound like such an asshole. I’ve lost friends this year. I’ve lost friends this month. I’m traveling. I’m writing. I’m not dying. I’m not starving.  I know, I know  it could be worse.

I write for a living. I’m in advertising. I know what I could say or should say. I know all the aphorisms and slogans and positive self-talk. I could convince you in a minute that I’ve learned something special from all this, that I’m on the road to recognizing the beauty of life, the need for acceptance and forgiveness. I can write that horseshit in my sleep. Sometimes I can even make myself believe it.

But I started packing this morning, and realized I wasn’t going to take my laptop, not because I won’t want to write, but because if I do, I’ll end up working. I’ll end up staring down at ATONEMENT, wondering what formula I have to arrive at before I believe all that’s happened to me isn’t just desserts, and everything happening to me right now isn’t just the bill coming due for all of my follies, mistakes, misapprehensions and misspent youth. This has got to be my fault. I mean, it just has to be.

I’m not a believer, but I am superstitious, of superstitious stock. I worry writing this down now dooms the story to not really being over. I worry this story won’t end. Or at least, won’t end well. Should I share these thoughts? Isn’t it better if I just tell you I’m fine?

And yeah, I know exactly how crazy that sounds.

It doesn’t mean make it feel any less true.

For those interested, trips with Dad are generally hilarious. Those looking for laughs or wondering whether I’ll make it through ten days abroad without experiencing the UK health care system first hand, I’ll be updating on Instagram with a lighter touch than this, if you want to follow along.