Friday, September 3, 2010

The Tour

This is a rough account of my trip to visit grad schools back in March:

The morning before I left, we had a stupid argument. I was hassling Billy about wasting water, because he was letting the faucet pour waiting for the temperature to heat up when I’d already told him there was no hot water. He grew sullen and angry at the breakfast table, refusing to look at me, and my voice became shrill. I tossed his phone at him poorly (on purpose) so that it skittered out of his hands, and he swatted the expensive fresh cream I’d bought off the table, onto the floor. We were both behaving badly, in other words. These things happen.

We apologized stiffly in front of the taxi. I was leaving for five days, and our fight felt like a bad omen. I was looking at places to potentially move to for graduate school while he stayed behind, watering the plants in our back yard and feeding the cats.


More than anything else, the light in North Carolina held a different quality. It was brighter, for one thing, and also sharper. The sand, the air, the whitewashed walls, all had an overexposed quality. Like you might disappear into the background, a pair of eyes and a hand thrown up for shade, barely discernible in the flood of sun.

The ground, when I walked on it, was a mix of sand and grass. Sand with sparse blades crunching under my feet. The University buildings were brick and clean, and everything was still.

I drove my car with a broken right foot, using my healthy left foot to brake while I nodded along to classic rock and country radio stations. I spent a lot of time alone there. I ate alone at Outback, happily chewing on ribs and sipping Shiraz while I read Mary Gaitskill. I took a whole booth to myself and tipped my waitress nicely. Wilmington.

I thought maybe I could live there. When I went to the beach, a woman let me park my car in her neighbor’s driveway rather than feed money into the parking permit machine. A girl on the sidewalk smiled shyly and complimented my purse. The beach was shelly and crowded but real, a real beach, and I imagined summer bonfires and trips to the islands that dot the coast there. I would drink whiskey with professors and tan my shoulders while deeper, inside me, something slowed down.

But then there were the students, who made too big a fuss about me being from New York City, and my own reaction to their attention, knowing-it-all and puffed-up like a threatened bird. I spoke loudly, rudely, I thought, in class when the teacher asked for my perspective. I could sense (or was I imagining) their irritated glances. I was exhausted. The star student was a twenty-four-year-old named Keith who twisted his hair in mock dreads and wore his shirt unbuttoned far down his knobby tanned chest. His work was fantastic and I admired it, but he seemed committed to avoiding eye contact. When, after class, a couple of students invited me to a poetry party at a professor’s bungalow, I declined. I drove to my motel room instead, swallowed a xanax with a swig of bottled water, and set my alarm.

The 5am flight to Columbus was spent nodding in and out of a foggy half-sleep, my head thrown back and mouth drying out next to a polite businesswoman in a skirt-suit. I landed at 9am and got a text right away from my student guide, who was waiting at baggage claim for me. Here we go, I thought.

Raymond was short and stocky with wispy pale hair and pink skin. He didn’t offer to help me with my suitcase (I annoyed myself by noticing, but it’s true); still, he was right on time and parked close. His car was not just messy but dirty, dusted with crumbs and emitting a certain smell, like dirty laundry, old takeout and beneath that something more intimate. He hailed from northern Virginia like me, so we had that to talk about, and as we puttered along the highway and the buildings of downtown Columbus rose into view, he swept his arm in mock grandeur towards them and said, “and here’s the famed Columbus skyline.”

Raymond hated Columbus, though he didn’t care for Arlington, Virginia either. His ideal city was Madison, Wisconsin, where he’d gone for undergraduate and lived happily until grad school lured him away. These were cities I would never have considered as places to live, but here I was, nodding along. This could be your life, I thought. It was a baffling but not unhappy thought.

We did things for a few hours: drank coffee at Starbucks, drove through Columbus, stopped by his house, which also smelled, mostly of cat shit, and picked up another potential student named Nick. Nick was visiting from Possumneck, Mississippi, and when he introduced himself I asked him to repeat that. “Possum Neck?” I said, “really?” He laughed and said, “Yeah. Possumneck.”

That was point one for Columbus. Manhattan and Columbia might attract students from Prague, Mexico City or New Zealand, but they sure as shit wouldn’t have goofy guys with sky-blue eyes named Nick from Possumneck, Mississippi. Nick told me he wore steel-toed work boots to teach his students at the state school so that they’d respect him more. “They like good old boys there,” he said. “They loved Ariel, though. I told them the whole story about the gas oven, and they got really into it.”

The day was packed with activities – introductions, receptions, tours. I crunched around campus with my geriatric boot, marveling at the great lawn where undergrads in bikinis lugged stereos and blankets on which to roast themselves. We stopped for iced tea in the newly renovated student center, where we could hold office hours, we were told, whenever the 1960s-era English building got too depressing. The girl who told us that was beautiful, petite and charming in a flouncey sundress. Her father had been part of the Manson family.

Everyone was just so nice. The cliché about Midwesterners, it turns out, is true: they really are that friendly and welcoming and laid back. We were standing in a reception hall holding plates piled with cheese and crackers while around us people wheeled, laughing and chatting and shaking hands, and I felt like crying.

There were more events: dinner and drinks with the third-year women; a students-only open mic where people hollered and cheered, getting drunk on local beers; a keg party where the host played Britney Spears and people milled around the back yard wiping foam from their mouths and trading jokes.

I stood under a tree with a recent grad who was heading to Yale in the fall for his Ph.D. in Medieval Literature. It was getting late, and the party had evolved to its sloppy apex, people playing drinking games and grabbing each other, the music turned up louder. “I’m worried I’m too concerned about reputation,” I shouted. “Like what if this is a better place for me, but in the end I need the big name because I don’t believe in my talent enough. Like I need the big name to legitimize me?” He nodded, thinking. He leaned in closer, our temples side-by side, shoulders bumping into each other. “If that’s your thing, though, that’s your thing. I mean, if that’s your neurosis, everyone’s got something, there’s nothing wrong with it.” My ride home was standing on the porch steps; I could see her biding her time in a boring conversation while she waited for me. “I know, I just, I don’t think I can say no to Columbia,” I said. I felt mournful, like I knew just then that I was giving up my last chance at simplicity, at slowing down, at being on my own, away from anyone who ever knew me before, at some rare opportunity to start from nothing, as no one, unfettered. “Columbia’s the big time,” he agreed.

The ride to the airport the next morning, after I’d been treated to brunch and fig ice cream and a view of the park, was smooth and quiet. I watched the city shrink as the flat land around us expanded, the highway arcing over it towards the plane that would carry me home. This place would make you happy, I thought, but you’ll never let yourself come here again.

In the weeks that followed I would wrestle that voice, attempt to pin it on the mat and force it into submission, but in the end it spoke the truth. There was something larger I had to do, a stronger and more immediate call to finish what I’d started in New York – with Billy, with my home, with my friends, with my writing. I did not, ultimately, choose to leave. On the other hand, that voice had been layered with deception. Going away wouldn’t really be leaving, after all. I long to be less attached sometimes, but I’m not a tree that can be transplanted, gingerly dug up and then repotted, watered and sunned until I’ve forgotten my old plot of land. I’ve never known how to let go of things. I’d have left behind a severed hand, still holding on to what was mine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

This is water

I ate an egg and cheese biscuit while I walked. The yolk spilled out with my first bite, a hot splash on my forearm, shockingly yellow. There was something obscene about it, like a tiny miscarriage. It was one hundred degrees out and the street was sizzling, people were leaning into the shade, barely moving. I licked the yolk off and then looked around, embarrassed.

I was on my way to the tattoo shop and knew I was supposed to eat, but I was nervous and the dough felt thick in my mouth. Halfway through I discarded it, then felt bad about the waste.

That was the point. I was always feeling bad.

When I got the idea to get a tattoo, it was my secret. I turned the phrase over in my head and nodded in covert agreement with myself. Yes. That would be it. Weeks later I told Billy about it on Canal Street, ducking my head and letting my voice get high and squeaky like a child. He couldn’t hear me and asked me to repeat myself, twice. When I finally blurted it out he shrugged, nodding. Yeah, he said, that’d be cool.

Except there wouldn’t be anything cool about it, because it was painfully earnest – a David Foster Wallace quote on the MFA student’s ribcage. The imagined eye rolls stung like a string of canker sores. I prodded them with my metaphoric tongue, tasting the iron.

I still wanted it. That was the thing. Weeks turned into months and I was still tooling around on type blogs, testing different fonts, so fine, fuck it, I decided to do it. Then I obsessed over tattoo artists, finding the very best, the perfect, the predestined. Which didn’t exist, of course. There was something imperfect in all of them.

The one I ended up choosing bullshitted with her friends while she set up her station, filling a cup with ink and fiddling with her gun. I was alarmed. I looked from her friends to her and back to her friends, neck to ankles in ink talking about an Edwardian jewelry store in Red Hook, and considered bolting. I glowered at the one closest to me, willing him to leave, but he didn’t notice.

This was not the spiritually enlightening experience I had crafted in my mind. We had not discussed the deep meaning of my phrase and my reasons for choosing the font I’d brought with me, and she’d shrugged when I asked if she thought we’d picked the best spot for it.

I think it looks good, she’d said, but what do you think?

Her friends were not leaving and so I asked if we could have some privacy once she was ready to start working. I’m kind of nervous, I said. That was all it took, and she hopped up to grab a screen, shaping it around her station. They left and the only noises after that were Led Zeppelin and the buzz of her gun.

It didn’t hurt, if you’re wondering. It stung a little bit and I felt dazed and wobbly afterward, and that was pretty much it.

I have a tattoo.

I have a tattoo, I told Billy when I walked in the door. I shimmied around the bedroom, doing a funny hop-step. I do, I do, I have a tattoo. He laughed and nodded. Meggie, he said, it looks good.

I felt happy and then later I felt sad, taking the bandage off and washing with soap. Little curls of ink fell away and there it was, black and bright on my skin. My skin! I wandered into the bedroom shirtless and bloated from the Chinese food I’d ordered in celebration and stood in front of the mirror. Maybe this was stupid, I said. Maybe this was better as an idea.

It’s just a change, Billy said.

I said that’s true, and then we took a walk.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Magic Moment

(Right now) Hey, it's your tomorrow
(Right now) Come on, it's everything
(Right now) catch that magic moment
Do it right here and now
It means everything

In the spring of 1993, Crystal Pepsi was going to change our lives. We were twelve years old, my classmates and I, wobbling on the precipice of puberty that would soon swallow us, when the commercials started. Conceived by executives as the ‘pure’ alternative to cola – free of dyes, free of caffeine – Crystal Pepsi was marketed as a new soda, yes, but also the new fuel for an unprecedented, eco-conscious moment in history, and its timing was impeccable.

In school we were learning how our older sisters’ hairspray ate holes in our sky, letting our big yellow sun wreck us with cancer and melt frozen continents. We were taught to snip the plastic rings that held six-packs together into tiny pieces, so that baby seals would not be strangled in their inadvertent nooses. The products we’d grown up with, we were learning, held death; responsibility was handed to us along with plastic scissors that we might become guardians of our world and preserve its wonder. It was, you might say, a tall order. We were twelve years old and we loved animals, but we also loved pizza and MTV.

And then there was Crystal Pepsi. It’s strange, in retrospect, to remember a product marketed so effectively that a nation’s schoolchildren held their breath in collective anticipation not just for the launch of a new soda, but the new world order embodied in that soda, but it was so. Sammy Hagar wailed “Right now,” and our mouths fell open into little fish-gaps. We waited.

The Crystal Pepsi commercial, launched during Super Bowl XXVII, was epic: Van Halen’s anthem rocketed from our TV sets while images of babies, computer screens and endangered species flashed in time with typed proclamations: “Right now nature’s inventing better stuff than science,” “Right now computers still can’t laugh,” “Right now artificial just doesn’t feel right,” and “Right now only nature needs preservatives.” We stared, breathless, as our anxieties and excitements about the future were fingered in their deepest crevices. For all of us at that time were becoming aware of the paradox intrinsic to our existence: that nature (did our minds flick, unconsciously, to the rolling lawns and surf spray of our childhoods?) was dying, while technology – the avenue to all things adult – bloomed.

Crystal Pepsi winked at us and held out a hand, promising to lead the way: It was all going to be fine – better than fine. In sixty glorious seconds, Crystal Pepsi defined the world we longed to join – not the world as it was, threatened by environmental disaster, but a magical hybrid world where mankind lived in harmony with nature – Eden with the Internet. In the land of the Crystal Pepsi commercial, animals we’d grown up doodling in our bedrooms were going to flourish at the same time as astronauts orbited the earth. Everything was possible. Soon we would dive into crystal clear waters and grasp the very essence of life. We would emerge reborn.

It’s difficult to explain the fervor with which we anticipated our first sips of Crystal Pepsi to those who didn’t live through the marketing campaign, or who lived through it at older, less impressionable ages. But the tension was real. I have only one memory from a week-long trip to Ocean City that year, for instance: sitting with my friend Sarah in her Aunt’s beach house, sprawled out on the industrial carpeting in the living room while the sun beat down on the sliding glass doors and children’s screams mingled with seagulls’ outside, watching the Crystal Pepsi rhinoceros slowly lower its head (RIGHT NOW!) and the astronaut float above the earth, giving the double thumbs-up (RIGHT NOW!) and yes, right now we all were thirsty for something different, and we couldn’t believe it was finally happening. It was almost here.

You are, I’m sure, anticipating the revelatory moment when we finally plunked our change into the vending machine, drew the ice-cold can from its bowels and cracked the tab open with a spritzy hiss. You are imagining what that first sip felt like, what our first true experience of cultural disillusionment tasted like, and I will tell you: it tasted sweet. That first sip tasted like nothing but sweetness, because we could not bear the knowledge, so immediate and visceral, fizzing on our very tongues, that Crystal Pepsi was, after everything, just soda.

Some of us argued – insisted – that it really was good (I, tragic optimist that I am, fell in that camp), while others rolled their eyes with contempt. Because it wasn’t good, not at all; if anything it tasted worse than regular Pepsi, a silly, pale, carbonated drink that none of us so much as worked up a craving for. A few of us attempted subsequent cans, and then we all stopped. The backlash was quick and it was ferocious: Crystal Pepsi sucked. The product was pulled from shelves.

The loss, of course, was not of a snack that failed to deliver deliciousness. It was the loss of faith in a promise of change. We, the first children to be raised with knowledge of global warming, holes in the ozone layer, rainforest desecration, we who were entering the first AOL chat rooms and shyly lying about our ages to strangers with stupid screen names, wanted to believe that the world laid out before us held hope. It wasn’t that terrible things were happening and we wanted improvement – it was that things both terrible and wondrous were happening concurrently, and we wanted assurance that we were headed in the right direction. Crystal Pepsi told us we could trust in known entities and their ability to adapt benevolently to change, and what we learned was that no one knew a thing. There were no parachute packs assembled to gentle us into wondrous new lands. The notion of a new world was itself a fallacy. It was all a sham, a bunch of bumbling idiots shilling syrup for change – for coins. Money. Worse, those idiots had somehow known what we needed to hear, and they’d exploited us. We were their suckers.

What did we do, after we’d thrown our half-full bottles of Crystal Pepsi in the trash? Did we run for our tire swings or stay past dusk on our trampolines? Or did we swing our hair, scoffing? We didn’t care, after all – it was just a freaking soda. Only a baby would care.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Varet Street

We walked through the streets late at night, early in the morning, noticing the industrial buildings around us. The air was warm and my heels clacked like army boots. Everything I'd been worrying about felt safely far away - my sister with her stomach stitched up, my father with a tube in his head. Music from a neighborhood party echoed off the rooftops. We shared a bottle of water and looked at the factories, where the Boar's Head cold cuts are frozen and distributed, where corrugated boxes are made to order. Bushwick had never felt so safe, all five of us marching like a little band. I wondered if these were my friends, my Brooklyn family. It's lonely here sometimes.

We made our way back to Mark's car and drove the short distance to my apartment, gazing at the late party-goers straggling home. I said I worry sometimes that living here prolongs a sense of adolescence, freezes our growth in time. We're almost thirty and still doing the same old things, still noticing things together. What will happen when that changes? And when should it change? I don't think any of us knows.

I let myself into my apartment and started cleaning. I swept under the couch, in neglected corners, coaxing balls of hair and dust from hiding. It felt like teasing out pockets of shame, the detritus of my life. I listened to the mix I made for my parents' wedding anniversary two years ago, the old love songs I'd put in order for them. How do you know what your own life is, and what your managed idea of your life is? I spend so much of my time thinking of myself as I relate to other people. I don't know where I am if there's no one there to place me. I finished cleaning and I sat on the couch and I listened to the Byrds, and I thought about it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The first time

The first time we thought my dad was really sick was a summer night two years ago. I had gotten off the Greyhound in DC and found my sister's car waiting outside, slung my bags in her trunk and climbed in the passenger seat when she looked at me, gripping the steering wheel, her eyes like bowls.

We drove straight to the hospital.

It took some time to get back to the room where they had him; they were only letting in two visitors at a time, and there were four of us: me, my mom and my sisters. It became a game, dodging past the orderly when he wasn't looking - slinking through the electronic gated doors.

My dad was scrooge in a nightgown, white-haired and naked under his hospital gown. He was busy plucking off the electrodes stuck all over him, which was sending the heart monitor into an alarmed wail. No no no, we said, pulling them from his hands and pasting them back onto his skin. Even with them in place the heart monitor was skipping all over the place. I'm leaving, he insisted, trying to swing his legs off the bed. Tracey sat like a bulldog at the foot of the mattress and taunted him: How are you gonna do that?

Dehydration, they eventually said. My mom had found him in the backyard with soiled sweatpants and a sweat-drenched sweatshirt in the afternoon sun. She had washed him in the shower and he had gone to the bathroom again, so she washed him off a second time. She thought he'd had a stroke because he couldn't string a sentence together.

That night on the way to the hospital we didn't know if we were driving to say goodbye, and so I started memorizing. My sister's face, the shake in her voice, the night highway.


Saturday, June 5, 2010


New York was breaking my heart yesterday. It was one of those days where I was rattled, feeling less than sane, and so everywhere I went I saw castaways. Men lurching past me, reeking. Women who looked normal, were dressed well enough, but upon passing were sputtering gibberish. People cross-legged in doorways with filthy, encrusted feet. Why does that happen? It's like a magnetic force, my crazy drawing all the other crazy into my field. In the city you see plenty of damaged people every day, but it's not usually all you see.

I was done, finally, with my day, descending into the bowels of Port Authority when a bright-eyed Chihuahua wanted to say hello to me. He strained at his leash, ears perked and tiny tail vibrating. His owner was an old man having trouble with the stairs, paused halfway up with a walker, and I went to smile at him, him and his dog. But his eyes were milky and he was muttering. That was it for me, the last straw. I went home home home and quickly to bed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


They say evolution comes in spurts, and I believe that’s true. The sudden explosion rather than the gentle uphill slope. I worried so long about what to change and when, but when change came it came of its own accord, without my consent.

You do the work. You plod along and do what you believe should help, and nothing changes. You obsess over one thing over and over, night after night, losing sleep and drinking too much. Friends get tired of listening, poor things, and they’re right. You’re going in circles.

What I know is that the real growth happens without forethought. You’re in the middle of an argument and suddenly you say words you’ve never been able to say. You say, “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sorry.” Or you say, “Go to hell.” You watch as the light changes around you, revealing a new landscape.

The Bible has a line about God never giving us problems we can’t handle, and I don’t believe that. People shoot themselves and hang themselves and drink themselves to death because they can’t survive. So I don’t believe that’s so. Still, we can be surprised by our sudden ability to take things that for so long were the stuff of nightmares. Things can suddenly become easy and right.

I’m being intentionally opaque, and I’m sorry about that. This is a public space and so I don’t want to be specific. I’m not deluding myself into thinking my prose is poetically elusive rather than just plain hard to get through. You, whoever you are, are probably rolling your eyes. But that’s alright. I can’t believe you’re reading in the first place.

It’s a beautiful day here in New York. Is it sunny where you are? Funny how things devolve to small talk when there’s not much more to say. We might try silence.