Before he touched my skin, I already detected that I was lying in a puddle of sweat and sticking to the naugahyde massage table, with my jeans unzipped and filleted around my thighs, my underwear elastic pulled down over them. I hadn’t prepared for this fully, I realized. Good thing I wore my good underwear, I thought.
I heard the gloves pop onto his hands and heard his four-wheeled low stool, the seat matching the black naugahyde table, roll away with a swish and then roll back, as I stared at a high-vaulted tile ceiling. Something soft and wetly cool touched my lower left hip, wiped across it, then the other way, then lifted with no sound.
“I’m laying the stencil down,” he said, in a monotone voice, nonetheless one of the phrases in his arsenal he used every day, as natural as “Good morning” or “How’s it going?” I felt pressure and then a comfortable pull, like a Bandaid one wears for days finally peeling off with little fanfare or pain.
“Take a look and see if you like it.” From this prone and vulnerable position, I was now denigrated to standing up, at the age of eighteen — hardly a prude but not nearly far enough away from my previous virginhood — with my pants below my waist in order to waddle to a full-length mirror, in front of a man I’d met only moments before, all with the goal of making a marked change on the rest of my life.
I studied the view – the vantage of a scorpion from above, claws both raised above its head, tail turned in towards my abdomen and toward one of two stars separately posted on the outsides to indicate the constellation and the zodiac. If there was ever any symbol that defined me throughout my life, it was the scorpion, my birthright, literally. I was textbook – withdrawn yet watchful, forceful yet determined, obsessive yet intuitive, jealous yet passionate.
Shuffling back over to the table, I plopped myself like a fish on the cutting board of the massage table and shimmied my body — head, back, hips, ankles — as close to the position I had lain in before all in order to put myself back together.
“Okay,” I smiled, staring again at the ceiling. And so we began.
Believe me: they can try to make you feel at home with paintings on the walls, books on shelves in their cubicle-style offices, and music slowly drifting from their iPods. It almost works if you close your eyes. The tattoo artists and institutions can attempt to mask the smell of metal and blood and burning flesh with sterile goops and oils and wipes. And for this, we should be thankful. We aren’t, after all, a bunch of sailors settled in port for the night, yearning to blow of some steam with a bottle of whiskey and an outline of a pretty girl.
But the truth is, you are electing minor surgery when you walk into that tattoo studio. The initial buzzing from the tattoo gun is the scalpel ready to slice. It’s the machete ready to rat, tat, tat against the husk of your life, to farm a new crop on the soil of your skin.
The minute the tattoo outline begins, you register your terror and the idea takes root. What are you doing? Long lines of pain and then reprieve, slicing and then wiping, slicing and then wiping, feels like hours when it’s hardly close. The seeds are sown in perfect pattern. You feel dizzy and you shake, and your skin feels like it is being whisked by cold gusts without the wind. (Some say like tiny bees making a calculated stinging attack, all in the same area of your body.) Your system yearns to understand what defense mechanisms it should employ to detect and eradicate this virus. But this is self-inflicted, this is conscious, and your brain runs the course of logic while your body gets wounded. You march yourself into war and you take the beating, lying down, just like others before you and after you, who are and will be attracted to the experience and the outcome– the yearners, the searchers, the prophets of their own lives.
I remember attempting to have a conversation with the tattoo artist but my voice was shaky and unsure, especially over the bellows of British punk rock and Nuevo American metal slashing out of the iPod’s speakers. Soon enough, my soft supple hip gave up registering pain, sedated from the torture of the outline.
Then the magic began – the unsuspected second tattoo gun clicked into being where it hadn’t existed before and began filling the spaces in between, giving dimension through the shading of the claws and the arachnid shell and the stars. Gaps of flesh, imagined but not real, seared underneath the needle with five more tips than the first and rubbed raw against my skin like a Brillo pad on sunburn. I found myself feeling a sense of pride in marking my own body, in fighting my impulse to run away from pain and just being. Just feeling.
After we finished, there was more wiping down, some goo applied that felt like sonogram gunk, and more sterilization and then a covering. Those hands that felt so alien to me only an hour before, warmly taped a matte-finished yet slippery bandage pad over my hip and drew two long lines of medical tape across their lengths to cage in the mark. I stood, fully aware, hyperaware, of my surroundings – the warm wooden and scuffed floor of the tattoo studio, the old 19th century rowhome turned tattoo studio posts holding the building up, the fragile giggling of others in the waiting room.
It was a high, probably not unlike a runner’s high, but I am no authority on that. I do know that I left that tattoo studio feeling newly molded into myself, into someone I was fully in control of creating. That night, after the requisite two hours, I pulled the bandage off, and slowly, in circles, wet my hip with warm water and caressed it with antibacterial soap to remove the dried blood, then applying some burn cream to start the healing process. I threw the underwear away that night, already muddled by the blood I wouldn’t be able to wash out or explain to my parents if they investigated my laundry. The blood wouldn’t come out but it was no issue – the girl who wore those underwear hours before wasn’t walking the world anymore.
It’s a weed that attracts more weeds. It’s a gangly arm shoved from the right of my body, with my hand straight out, all attached to a torso, attached to a neck, attached to a head with a face that scrunches up in discontent at the tone of your voice, the diversion of your eyes, the word, that word, on your tongue.
It’s overgrowth, stretching to cover hard emotions that aren’t so hard, but can be buried in soft ground and covered by more shoveled sand and silt and dirt until no one else would know. Or rather, I believe that they can be buried, like my head in the pillow, going to sleep under covers in the middle of the day to avert a crisis of worry, a non-existent possibility that consumes my brain.
It’s those defense mechanisms I’ve held on to for so long to keep from healing. Weeds still need rain and sunlight, they still need to be nurtured in order to stay alive, to thrive. I tend them with my ignorance; I tend them by still using them and not asking why. Walking away, when I feel defeated or attacked; drawing myself inward, limbs tight, face averted; becoming quiet, misinterpreting your words. Or rather, interpreting your words the way I would 15 years ago, when I felt trapped and lonely and unwelcome.
Without the anxiety, without the mechanisms, I’d have to breathe and listen. Without the weeds, I have to assess the situation, I have to analyze what overgrown tomb of emotional and psychological haunt these actions are coming from.
Those weeds are wizards, they’re warlocks, disguised as growth. But just because they’re alive, it doesn’t mean they’re immortal. Weeds can die a death that’s slow and painful. But the more they sink in, the more painful it gets, the more those roots wrap around and cling. It’s a Catch-22 that’s not magical or paranormal or unimaginable. It’s well within in my hands to turn those reflexes over, to shake that overgrowth and soil in the pan of my life, to discover the gold nuggets through introspection and acknowledgement.
It’s only in my hands to stop watering those weeds, to pull them out slowly and to thank them for a job well done.
I want to tell a story with full words and slight stops, but it’s too high in the throat. I have to throttle it out into full drive.
Where it started I can’t say- a silent stare into your eyes, a touch that tattooed my skin, a laugh that jumped into the air and never broke. I sing the songs I’ve hung onto for so long, downcast and depressing, and they have lost meaning, they fly into the background, crash, lay flat, and deflate. The music of vision and purpose, one step in front of the other; a defined path and a case for setting it right on foot, out of the wilderness.
Where it starts- a morning yawn that mouths your name, a stretch that shakes of you, a sound that mimics the crisp Spring.
Lost and grasping, I need to refresh this blank page and start writing, but the blank page collects my imagination and pushes it to months of growing older, to hours of talking it over, to seconds of hanging on.
I want to tell the story with full words and slight stops of who we’ve become to each other, of old eyes seeing new again, of old souls finding home. Of saying good morning and meaning it first, of stepping off this brake and enjoying the ride, of turning fear into life.
This story gets written from here, our tongues in their proper places, our lips pursed to start, our throats clear and ready to scream.
It was cold; but not too cold to wear my uniform those days: plaid skirt, fishnets, and Doc Marten boots. Tracy and I hopped into my baby blue Ford Mercury Topaz, lovingly tagged the Skankmobile – not so named after the slang term for sexually promiscuous girls but for the jumpy, walking-in-place dance that we employed to our favorite types of music, ska and punk. With fresh packs of smokes, we started the night exuberant – embarking on an hour-long trip to Washington, D.C. for a club show, intending on meeting up with friends once we arrived. My parents took pictures of Tracy and me close to each other in my living room, our bodies smiley and giddy, hugging each other.
Chain smoking and listening to CDs on a plug-in Walkman, some kind of ska or punk band most likely framed by brass horns and saxophones and grumbly vocals, I drove while Tracy read the directions printed from Mapquest, navigating our path up I295 and then I495 through the night, rambling on in spaces about how excited we were about meeting boys, about the late-night, dark-street glory and mystery of the nation’s capital, of possibly having a drink or two passed to us in secrecy.
And then Tracy yelled loudly that we were about to miss our exit. I swerved into the right lane, not sure that I had already missed it. A screech. Numbness while watching the world from my window. An unconscious body tuck, like I was on fire. A pop.
Our detour, hidden from view on those directions we checked and double checked, and not meant to get us any closer to our destination or around some unwieldy obstacle like traffic or bad weather, was skidding across four lanes of traffic, hitting a roadside guardrail, and flipping back onto the wheels, doing a few twirls and ending up in the median. Memories of which are like amusement park rides that swing you out and then back into center. But I didn’t find center. Air and then the brackish pound of the hood hitting ground. Circling a full 360, then another, like the rock and roller at the town fair of which I was always so fearful. I never liked being fully out of control, off the ground, being thrashed around.
Back across the same four lanes of traffic to the left. Landing in the thin grass median, partly yellowed by drought, between the North and Southbound lanes, windows busted out, the cd Walkman still playing the same old song as if it were on repeat. Or as if nothing had happened.
I wish I could remember that song.
I couldn’t hear anything completely, see anything completely; I could have been in a circus of lights and blurs, animals and people for all I knew.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I just need to call my parents.”
Calmly collected, I turned off the engine of the car, released the key from the starter, and reached for my purse and my cellphone in the backseat. Noticed a clump of someone’s hair on the light gray fabric, hardly registering it as my own. I remember panicking, the only thought pursuing my consciousness that we needed to get out of the car before it blew up, like we had just survived a high-speed chase and crash in some as-yet-unnamed action movie. The things your brain registers when trauma surrounds you – I noted in my brain that you’re supposed to run in a zigzag pattern if you’re getting shot at too.
Some man helped us get out of Tracy’s side of the car, since mine was sealed shut, indented, pushed out of its natural space, as if by a giant’s large hands. A strongman.
I remember the night. The cool night. Sitting on grass, fumbling for some understanding of what it meant not to be in the car, singing to songs, moving to our destination. An amorphous ghost form of hip and leg with a hand coming from nowhere, offering me towels to press on my head and knee. Someone said the police are coming, the ambulance. I felt dizzy and a phone was held to my ear, but it felt gooey and wet and something tasted metallic. My phone.
“We’re coming to get you honey.”
The paramedics, all blue coverall and flashlight, strapped me on a board with a neck brace and I heard Tracy saying that everything would be okay. “I’d rather be in an accident with you than anyone else.” I kept apologizing to her; my brain couldn’t move from the immediate. She kept saying, “Honey, it’s going to be okay.”
Finally able to assess myself in the short trip to the hospital, covered in blood in the ambulance, asking about Tracy and where she would be going, I caught a comment that, as the medic put it, “luckily” no other cars were hit and no one else was hurt, which in my state I hadn’t quite considered a possibility separate from myself.
So much movement, lights, screeches, and halts in the emergency room. The cops kept asking if I was drinking, what happened, questions about seatbelts. Was I the driver? They started asking me questions I didn’t know the answer to: What was my address? What was my last name? What time did I think it was?
Throwing up the meatloaf my mother fed us before we left, and apologizing for it nonstop, my body sat concussive and shivering while I endured stitches pinning and pinning and pinning me back together. Voodoo girl getting stitched up. I felt pulling on my scalp, like a tight mask was being peeled over my head from my face. I asked for more blankets even though I had a pile the size of a small mattress heaped upon me. The lights of the ceiling my only skyline, I was pushed into Cat Scans and sat dizzy, being yelled at to stay awake. The doctors were happy to report that I didn’t have a skull fracture or any brain damage. My head swelled. I woke up unable to hear out of my right ear at all, my hair still caked in blood, a hard time hearing.
I changed rooms. I remember having a young boy as a roommate who was moaning all night because he hadn’t had a bowel movement in weeks. That was the proper upgrade from my emergency room cot. My friends flitted in and out of my vision like specters. And my parents. Brian, Tracy, my brother. My mom went on and on about not worrying, about how everything would be okay. About calling the school regarding my scholarship. I might not be able to go back for the semester due to my injuries. About how I was very much lucky to be alive.
I am the only one in my family to walk away from a car accident. The only one to have anything other than a fender bender. It’s not anything anyone has had to deal with – so it wasn’t dealt with. No therapy, no talking about it, just doctor’s visits and medicines and salves for the stitching up of what people are able to deal with realistically, what they are able to see.
Instead, my friends dealt with it with humor. Tracy wrote me cards and letters every day. My new nickname was Ann “Danger is my middle name” Sosnowski. She sent me letters with quotes like, “Hope life is soon ducky, ‘cause right now it’s sucky” with a rubber ducky on the front; or “Heard you’re laid up. I wasn’t listening very well, though, so at first I was really happy for you…” with a picture of a truck on a bed of grass. Everyone commented about how I could have a career as a stunt car driver.
I still keep the key from the car in a box with other memories. Sometimes I see it and I don’t recognize it. I don’t know where it came from, where it should go. But I can’t get rid of it. It represents emotional degradation, it represents a life gap, it’s a doorway to a moment I’ve lost forever.
I earned my driver’s license after only attending classroom lecture for 30 hours and watching videos and taking multiple choice tests: A B B A C. The highlight of the classes was our half-hour break at night, when were more concerned with getting food from Burger King than understanding the proper etiquette of the road. At that time, soon-to-be young drivers were required to only have three driving lessons with a certified driving instructor. On the third, I went straight to the DMV to take my driver’s test with the four-door sedan I had only driven for a few hours. I passed. The next day, my dad bought me the used Ford Mercury Topaz for a little more than $3,000 and I agreed to pay him back in weekly installments from the measly money I was making during the summer working at the craft store. We started a ledger.
In one of the 30 hours of classroom instruction from Nice and Easy Driving School, the instructor stated two facts simultaneously – one of you will have a near fatal car accident in the next year; one of you will have a fatal one. I often wonder who the unlucky one was.
I found this as I’ve been working on my essay about my car accident in 2000. This was written while I was living at Hampden house in the late 2000s. It’s unedited here in this form, but will be pulled into what I’m currently writing. But I wanted to pay homage to it in this early form and introduce it to the world before it goes through a metamorphosis. It’s a snapshot of back then – like a photograph of words. Enjoy.
I am a speed bump in the road. The road holds me. It hugs me. It gives me placement, a base. Once in a while, headlights reflect off of me and into the distance and for a fleeting moment I have a shudder of hope that runs down my spine, makes my gut tingle.
It’s much like I feel when I start writing in my head, staring out at TV hill from the back porch smoking a cigarette or sitting under the front porch watching cars rushing down too fast on the hill that looks more like it belongs in San Francisco than Baltimore.
I’m not impervious. I don’t hurt the cars the ride over me half as much as they injure me and leave their mark. There are tire squeals and drip-dried tar, there’s a few chips in my yellow caution paint from people coming and going too soon. I drop off on the sides like I can’t fill my own space, and it’s a bit notchy. I’m annoying to myself and others.
I stand in my own way and can go nowhere. And once I become too much of an intrusion in everyone’s lives, I’m scraped and replaced… sometimes by a new pseudo-modern stretched speed hump that’s more courteous… sometimes by slow-down strips that are less of an eye sore.
It’s not the life I wanted to live. But I only last for a while. I’m not permanent. But sometimes speed bumps wish to be something more, to grow. Sometimes they do get up and walk away.
Sometimes they find a place that’s more forgiving, a place that lets any good speed bump carry their burden in peace.
And sometimes it rains all night and washes away those marks, like the oceans lap the shore on a beach and I wake up renewed and ready for another round of pummeling.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a poem and believed it to be true. The seasons have slid in, replacing the words – spring cleaning, winterization, falling back, summer vacation. Instead I write what I will do down, a way to recognize them but not fully commit – hours and days become lists of chores, shopping trips, phone calls, and follow ups. They read like lyric to me now and I race to scratch them away:
When I was a child, I literally thought a snake would jump up and bite me in the ass. Waking in the middle of the night, I’d be terrified to pull my legs off the bed, put my feet on the ground. Just like the shadows of leaves I pictured being men with moving mouths on the way, I swore there were snakes and mice on the ground, waiting to get at my toes. I’d pee in the dark bathroom once I half ran there. And I’d sit on the toilet thinking this would be the night I didn’t check to see if the water snake slithered up the pipes, in wait. I’d hurry and wipe and half run, half jump onto the bed, covers over my head to ignore the shadows creeping in.
Now, when I pee in the middle of the night, half groggy, listless, I keep the door open and stare into the dark hallway. I often feel like someone’s waiting, someone’s watching, some invisible curious being that I believe Ivan notices sometimes. I hear a scurry of a possible apartment mouse. They keep coming back. Who am I to think they find interest here, that this is even worth being around?
I speak to the dog to keep from speaking to myself. But I still practice dialogue out loud that I plan to use for the fiction I have yet to write. The fiction ideas that pile up on some white page in an unnamed file on the desktop of computer. In bed, on my side, I wrap one arm around my shoulder not to feel so distant from the empty. I write a line of poetry in my head that’s so good to write down, but I wake in the morning and it’s smoke.
One night, I sit alone on the couch as the dog snores behind me. I watch a baby mouse scurry across the living room carpet and then jump for a minute repeatedly, finally to grasp a vent rung and slink into the utility closet. I turn on the TV.
I triple check locks on the door; set six morning alarms on my phone five minutes apart. I close all the doors and the drawers and the cabinets. I move books and coasters so they’re flush with straight angles.
I’m supposed to make lists to keep my mind from spinning. I’m supposed to Be Here Now, to practice the art of mindfulness to get these anxieties to wilt away. She says if you drink coffee, drink the coffee. If you shower, shower. If you read, read. Focus
How am I supposed to focus with so many lists? I could spend my day jotting down these schedules, these tasks, like every day poetry and never get to any one of them. I want the cold, clean calm of a fresh inked line through a word, through a thought. I feel like I’m inventing a new style of writing in this everyday feverishness of nothing ever finished.
Growing up with an alcoholic father proved alienating for me. I never shared with my friends (what few I enjoyed) the details about my home: the fights, the drunken rants, the inconsistency of verbal and emotional abuse. I, instead, embraced loneliness by checking out stacks of books from the library and turning their pages to travel through the world outside safely.
My father is a simple man – a lower middleclass mechanic who overhauled gun systems for the military as a civilian. While he knew enough about the machines and technology he worked with, his own alienation from the real world offered little in the way of technological escape for his children. He didn’t give in to our demands for cable television until I was almost fifteen. When kids spoke about Nickelodeon and MTV at school, I turned the subject away to something else. I didn’t want them mistaking my father’s stubbornness for us being too poor to afford good TV programming.
Luckily, my father did recognize that as I advanced in school (my brother was already full grown and out of the house), I would need the Internet to complete research for my papers and projects. The added benefit is that it alleviated him having to shuttle me back and forth to libraries. It took him a while to understand that the encyclopedias he had bought from a door-to-door salesman were so much out of date that much of the scientific information was completely wrong – had been proven false. He didn’t want to be the reason his brilliant daughter flunked a grade because of an improper citation.
My dad took me to Best Buy and bought the cheapest computer he could find. And then he added Internet to our cable bill and bought a dial-up modem. We only had one phone line in the house, so I was cautioned to only log on to the Internet when it was absolutely necessary, complete my research, check my email, and log off. He didn’t want to miss any important or emergency phone calls because I was hogging the line. You never knew what could happen.
Little did he know what I could do with the Internet. Teenagers too young to drive yet, my friends and I would have sleepovers and spend all night in chat rooms and on Instant Messenger (IM), reaching out to the mature world we couldn’t yet physically inhabit. Everyone had screen names already, and I thought long and hard about what mine would be when I finally joined the digital age. I couldn’t wait that first night to log on in my upstairs bedroom, to chitchat with all my friends, with boys, with strangers, about music and literature and what happened at school that day. I thought if I just logged on really late at night, after midnight, and chatted until four, my father would be asleep and wouldn’t know the better of it.
I should have known better actually. Growing up in an alcoholic family has its risks, its inconsistencies for families, but those become strength for the drinker. The drinker never loses the capacity to catch you off guard. My father identified my plan early on – I’ve always been a really loud typist and it didn’t help that my computer and keyboard were right over my parents’ bedroom. Once my father realized I was on the Internet all night – doing who knows what – he would silently interrupt my transactions but lifting the phone and then slamming it in its cradle in the downstairs kitchen. A few times, I would wait a few minutes and log back on, thinking he was asleep, because he hardly made a noise. And then I’d hear the slam again. I got into the habit of starting all of my IM conversations, “If it says I’ve logged off, don’t worry. I’ll be back on.”
It became traumatizing, another kind of mental abuse. Having felt so alone in my day-to-day life, reaching out through a screen and just enjoying a few hours chatting with people at an age where I really needed it helped me look forward to the nights; look forward to something positive. I tried to convince my father I was doing research and that he was ruining my schoolwork but the power he had over me and my emotions was more important.
My IM life proved short lived. Most of my friends soon considered me a liar – I usually was never able to log back on once my dad interrupted service the first time. And many just quit even initiating conversations with me online. What was the point?
Now I’m happy to report that I have my own uninterrupted high-speed Internet in my own apartment and my research goes off without a hitch. On the other hand, my father is still opposed to technology he can’t understand and would never use – my mother still hasn’t been able to persuade him in their mid-seventies that she needs a computer and the Internet to stay connected.
My mother asked the family to chip in for a Kindle for her this year – she loves to read and we all have one already. I had to break the news right before Christmas that we couldn’t buy one – without Internet access and little interaction with the outside world and its plethora of Wifi hotspots, she wouldn’t be able to set up an Amazon account with a credit card and download books. Even if she did it on the sly, my father would be livid if he found out. It broke my heart when I told her and saw it myself – her look of alienation, her wish for some escape, the yearning for connection to the outside world.
I prefer the shorter parts of my life:
Grinding poetry from pulp to juice,
mashing the rind to sync the words with my meaning;
naps that lull of full-on sleep,
wearily rested and ready to move on;
a trail of thin lined cloud above my windshield,
the sun sherbet over my morning commute;
not the slow-sapping of pounding and putrid energy,
the night’s whispering and ear’s ringing, shuffling my legs,
the incessant throbs and aches ricocheting off bone and muscle.
The day often starts without me:
it’s awakening that’s easy.
I hear pages rustling in tender morning sleep,
stacks fanned through thick fingers,
the air gliding toward my nose.
The waking moments I can’t forget:
I did the work for you and
I’m not finished yet.
Scraping the ice from my windshield one morning: “You know, this could be the rest of your life.”
Spending my first Easter away from my family, I drove with Alan to his parents’ house in Skylar, Virginia. While Alan’s parents lived most of the week in Baltimore, running a successful graphic design firm in an old brownstone – the top floors of which had been Alan’s childhood home – they spent elongated weekends from Thursday to Sunday night at their hundred-acre homestead.
On the way there, we had dinner and some beers at Ruby Tuesdays to shrug the week off. Alan was driving but the few beers shouldn’t have fazed him, considering the amount he drank normally. It was actually the two Sparks he purchased at the first convenience store we found over the Virginia state line. Virginia sells beer and alcohol in single servings next to ice teas and sodas, unlike most of Maryland. Sparks is a malt beverage energy drink in a tall can that could be mistaken for an Arizona ice tea can in a moving vehicle.
I was aware that once Alan started drinking, he couldn’t stop. So instead of making a big to-do about my fear in the convenience store, I kept grabbing the can out of the car’s cup holder and taking the longest chugs I could. I wasn’t supposed to down any energy drinks, since I had a history of heart palpitations but, still decked out in my business suit from work, I didn’t intend to show up with him drunk. By imbibing, I figured I could ease the blow to his father, who Alan had mentioned on multiple occasions, didn’t agree with Alan’s drinking because his grandfather died of it. We could be similarly buzzed and pass it off as okay.
Alan’s parents were barely awake when we arrived at 10 p.m. They barely paid attention to me and luckily left us to ourselves, but not before showing me to the separate quarters where I would sleep. It wasn’t until the next day while touring the house that I would understand the size of the home. Alan and I stayed in one wing of the home, while his parents’ wing seemed easily the size of my parents’ modest two bedroom single-family home. The bottom floors of Alan’s parents’ house were transparent glass, surrounded outside by fertile beds of flowers, ferns and rosebushes. (I later learned that the care taken with the gardens earned it a feature in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens.) The library spanned two-times the size of the downstairs of my rental row house in Baltimore and featured a sliding ladder. The house also boasted a projector room, a sitting room, a living room, multiple dens, two kitchens, a greenhouse, a game room, multiple offices, more than seven bedrooms and probably more bathrooms than I can count. While I walked around with my mouth agape and in wonderment at the luxury of the home, Alan mentioned that he wanted nothing to do with the house and hoped his parents would leave it to someone else in their will, although he was an only child.
Once Alan’s parents’ went to bed that night, we changed into jeans and fleece jackets. He pulled a 24-pack of Miller Lite cans out of his trunk after telling me we were going for a walk. I didn’t want to drink and disrespect his parents whom I just met, but he shoved beer cans into my pockets anyway like I was a pack mule after his own were full, telling me if I didn’t drink them, he would anyway. And anyway, it was a long walk around the lake.
The full moon lit up the night and we were able to make our way without flashlights. We walked and walked and at some point, to show how far we were from his house yet still in the middle of nowhere, we howled at the moon. We made our way around the entire lake, making slight detours up craggy paths, as he pointed out the camping ground his father rented to the local boy scouts; to the limestone quarry where we would go shoot guns with his father on Easter (a tradition); to the archery range in a tiny grove; to the cottage where his father’s gardener lived during the summer and fall.
By the time we returned through his parents’ garage, we were still drinking, finishing the 24-pack. I figured if I couldn’t beat him, I might as well join him. Alan was doing his little dance, walking forward and backward as he did most of the time when he had surpassed his limit, like a lunatic in an asylum. He picked at his beard as his voice rose louder and louder and as I tried to turn the conversation away from politics and to the notion that we should probably go to bed. And that’s when he said it.
“I mean, I don’t know what you expect of me, Ann. I can’t even fall in love. So if you’re hanging around thinking that’s going to happen, it won’t. I mean, I’m an addict. It would take me hitting bottom to stop and I don’t want to stop. I mean, I enjoy your company but you should really walk away. I mean, I wouldn’t blame you, even if I might cry a little. Really, if you’re waiting around thinking I’m going to marry you or something, don’t hold your breath.”
The next morning I woke without Alan, dressed quickly, and slunk down the steps with a book. I said good morning and Alan’s mom nodded, but his father stared at his newspaper on the other end of the 12-seat feast table. I downed coffee and read until Alan came down. Alan’s father still made no motion towards me at all. He uttered no words, asked no questions. Wondering whether our late night had angered him beyond our own redemption, suddenly a young female voice peeped, “Good morning.” It was Nina.
I cringed, upset that Alan hadn’t mentioned she would be around for the weekend. She was technically Alan’s adopted sister, but not legally. Alan’s parents had taken her under their wing as patrons, this daughter of their drug-addled gardener who couldn’t get his life straight. Still in her early twenties, they paid for her fiddle lessons, her living expenses, and her horse training and grooming classes required for her job on a local farm. As if I didn’t feel enough of a ghost, Nina and Alan’s dad started a hefty conversation full of energy and purpose about music and tone, topping it off with an impromptu fiddle jam at the breakfast table.
Soon enough, Alan announced we were driving to Charlottesville to visit the University of Virginia campus, about an hour drive from Skylar. I, naively, was excited to check out the shopping in Charlottesville and actually visit the UVA campus. Instead, we ended up on a bar hop through the open-air Downtown Pedestrian Mall. We bought hats at an outside cart vendor, ate oysters shucked fresh at a local joint, and drank too much to have driven so far. I was ready to leave once Nina started trying to pick out college kids with backpacks who might have some drugs she could buy from them.
None of us were in any state to drive anywhere, but we didn’t want to be late for dinner, so we stopped at Harris Teeters after Alan convinced me to make my signature squash and zucchini sauté. Speeding the back roads of Virginia, we screamed Hank Williams III songs at the top of our lungs like transplanted country kids with nothing to lose– “Because I’m drinkin’, druggin’: I’m havin’ lots of fun./ I always carry round my loaded shotgun./ If I think I’m gonna have a bad time/ I got a little bit of smoke an’ a whole lotta wine.”
Whipping around country turns at almost 100 miles an hour, it’s only a matter of time before the law takes notice. When we heard the siren, Alan slowed to a crawl, but parked on a straight stretch, the car sticking out into the lane by a good few feet. His tactic prevented the rookie cop from coming to his window to question him, since that would endanger him to other fast cars curving the bend. Lucky one of us was thinking – one whiff of our driver and we would have all been hauled to jail. I looked down at the empty floor mat as I rolled down the window, and Alan’s deep voice turned into a Southern twang.
“Ah shore em surry sir. Ahm not frum ‘round here, but ma parents just moved ut hure. Ahm still nut shore ‘bout the speed limit, so ah shore do ‘pologize. Ah didn’t reelahze…”
Alan was bursting out of his seams to tell his parents about our close call and bond with his father over the wit he employed with the rookie cop. They pretended that we weren’t completely inebriated. It was undeniable through the meal that we would be hurting the next day – Alan drank all of the dinner wine, practically out of the bottle, and I put so much pepper in my sauté, since drunkenly I forgot that I had actually added it, that the food was inedible. Unimpressed and angry, his parents spit the squash and snap pea pods out, making no motion to hide it.
Alan’s parents invited us to the projection room to look at slides of their recent month-long trip to Cambodia, probably to keep us from drinking anymore, and Alan passed out snoring on the couch. I excused myself to my own room, but woke up hours later to Alan in bed, waking me with kisses and slowly trying to take off my clothes, whispering that his parents would never know that we shared a bed.
Easter morning: After a breakfast of croissants and assorted fruit, and a multitude of expresso shots to make us human again, Alan’s dad took us to the gun vault in the basement, picked out an array of shotguns and revolvers, and led us around the lake to his water-filled limestone quarry. The sun was still warming the day up and Alan’s father threw a few corks down thirty-feet to the surface. This was corking: you aimed to shoot the bullet between the bottom of the cork and the surface of the water, hoping to break the boundary and pop the cork up into the air.
Alan and his father shot for an hour without much luck, before his father reluctantly handed the shotgun over to me with a side eye. He stepped back with a slight smile on his face. Without saying a word, I loaded the bullets into the chamber, aimed and shot. The first cork of the day popped nearly ten feet into the air, and I abruptly handed the gun back to Alan’s dad. Alan exclaimed, “Good shot, almighty!” Alan’s dad looked at me and nodded, “I don’t know where you learned to shoot like that, but that’s good corking.”
After a light lunch, we packed the car for the three-hour drive home. Alan’s mother brought me out yellow tulips in a crumpled up aluminum foil vase, like some kind of consolation prize for showing up. I thanked her for the hospitality already sure I’d never see these people again. Alan and I drove home silent as the sky darkened. Laughs peeped from our mouths as we began listening to old comedic radio shows broadcast on NPR, but we were separate in our amusement. The tension followed me as I jumped out of the car, saying a quick goodnight and carrying my own luggage up my porch.
When a friend called the next day and asked how the trip had went, I muttered a subdued “fine” and changed the subject. He knew not to ask anything else.
One late night, in bed, in the dark: “You know when I first met you at the AIGA event and Matt said you two had dated, I told him I was surprised: that I thought he could do way better than you.”
I wore the low-cut halter dress: the one with the black and white two-tone Hawaiian flowers and a hem that rested on the floor when I wore flip flops. I didn’t start the day in it: Drinking on Friday had started at three p.m., slipping out of work to “shoot the castle” – our code phrase for rounding the corner and meeting within minutes of each other at the bar with the pinball machine. Those times were like flight and time travel – days of dried brain active enough to respond to simple tasks and forget them almost instantly, followed by nights of soggy brain, too oversaturated by drink to register anything but the pleasure, the beat, the churn of life.
Changes of venue – signaling the transition from afternoon drinking to serious night drinking – called for a change of mood. During the day, I wore jeans and T-shirts typing out financial advice for a do-it-yourself investment newsletter for men wearing JoS. A. Banks suits and Rolex watches; but at night I preferred to sex it up a bit – black dresses, messy hair, black eyeliner. I started to remind myself of one of those shallow girl magazines, which when not dispensing wisdom about how to give your guy an orgasm six different ways, doled out advice about modifying your “day look” into a “night look” with a sparkly blazer and a pair of slingbacks. Time traveling the five minutes through the city in a steady straight drive to home, I tidied up around eight p.m. and traveled back down the winding artery of the city to park in Canton – party central for college kids and adults who weren’t ready to let the college days go. As I walked through the square toward a bar I still don’t know the name of, I knew what I was doing. And maybe I even knew what I was going to get out of it. It’s only a matter of time before a fragile, fractured girl takes some man up on his offer and goes home with him. It’s only a matter of time before a girl, no longer in possession of what society views right and wrong, takes the ugly turn to give up her body for the sake of being seen as beautiful, even if it’s just for a few minutes in the dark. Of course I knew what I was doing – walking the square, pretending not to pay attention to the men staring at me as I sexily diverted my eyes. The true question was who I would choose to roll around in the muck with, arms over legs, after shots of whiskey.
What we knew about each other: he was an artist and I was a writer. He couldn’t walk straight and I kept tripping over my dress. He sat on the front steps and I on top of him. His fingers were thin and soft and my skirt was inching higher. He filtered out the people walking down the sidewalk and I didn’t. He didn’t turn the light on in the basement as we tried to sneak past everyone passed out on the couches and I almost fell down the steps. He wanted to get out of there and back to my place and I had the keys. Fingers fumbling claim on his body, I felt free. He thought he was in control but I really was. Even in the morning, even before our eyes opened. He didn’t ask my last name and I didn’t care about his.
We drank a pot of coffee in a daze, I sitting on my small stuffed couch in the back of the living room and him on the old teak chairs I snagged from a salvaging project on a local theatre. My legs were tucked under me, coffee cup on my knee. He looked at me and we spoke spaces in between small talk. Finally he admitted – he needed a ride to the light rail station.
I dropped Ted off and didn’t ask for his number. He didn’t look back as he slid into his car and doubled past me out of the exit. I immediately called my gay best friend Jason, boasting hungover nonsense about the arms of a Greek god who held me, about animalistic man and cunning woman, about the weight and noise of the shuffling of sheets.
If you could see who I just let out of my bed…