Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.



Outfoxed

By Slade Ham

Rants

Is it possible that we give some people too much credit? I understand the concept of “celebrity”, and I understand some people’s fascination with other people. I can grasp how you could become enthralled with an actor or musician’s body of work, or even when someone has a simply superficial attraction to somebody else.

But I do not get Megan Fox.

I’m sure this will generate a slew of replies that 1) will be from women that jealously agree with me, or 2) will be from guys calling me gay. Either way, that’s fine. I refuse to jump on the bandwagon though. I won’t spend five hundred words listing actresses that I think are more attractive either. That would be boring. Instead, I am more interested in how she hit the top to begin with.

First off, I don’t want to pretend that I don’t think Megan is beautiful. Stevie Wonder thinks Megan Fox is hot, and I only use Stevie here because there aren’t any other really well known blind people anymore. Who else knows Andrea Bocelli is blind? Exactly. He would find her amazingly attractive as well though, I’m sure. Still, the hottest person on the planet? I passed a girl in the aisle at Kroger earlier this week that made Megan Fox look like Snuffleupagus. THAT girl needs to co-star in a movie or a have TV show or be plastered on the cover of Maxim magazine.

At the very least, she needs a webcam.

Still, Megan Fox is “The Sexiest Woman in the World” according to FHM. And I’m sure she deserves to be up there… somewhere. She has to lose points though for having “”there once was a little girl who never knew love until a boy broke her HEART,”” tattooed on her rib cage. That’s not something you get inked on your body, that’s something that belongs in glitter letters on your MySpace page. She also has a yin-yang tattoo on her wrist and the Chinese word for “strength” on the back of her neck. I love tattoos on women, but seriously… she, and pretty much every other twenty year old girl with thirty disposable dollars, has an Asian symbol on her back.

That’s not sexy.

It’s obvious to me though that we needed her. That’s the only explanation. Let’s face it; Angelina Jolie fell off the haystack a while ago. I think it was somewhere between Kid One and Kid Six though I can’t pinpoint it exactly. As a people, we needed another “her”. Another Angelina. Someone that guys could lose their minds over and women could claim to be in love with as well. If I could seriously get a dollar for every time I heard a girl say, “I would totally go lesbian for Angelina Jolie” I would actually have enough money to buy both Megan Fox and Annalynne McCord.

But Angelina is thirty-four now and married and has a gaggle of Benetton children. It’s time for a newer model…

And before you try to sway me on this, I’m sure Megan is brilliant and charming and funny and all of that other crap. I’ve read an interview or two with her and she does have some attitude. I like it. I’m just sick of hearing about it. Nobody is THAT hot.

But Slade, she is the PERFECT woman. Why? Let me take a stab at it.

Is it because she claims to be bisexual and says she fell in love with a stripper when she was eighteen? Is it because she supports the legalization of marijuana? And she loves comic books? And Wikipedia says she named her dog after Sid Vicious? Is anybody really buying this? It sounds a little manufactured to me.

But it works, so good for you Megan.

You have taken over the world with bullshit. In ten years she too will have grown up. You can’t take seriously the words of a twenty-three year old actress. Whatever she’s selling is most likely a lie. That’s what twenty-three year old girls sell. It’s not even her fault; it’s just what’s in the inventory.

She’ll grow out of it.

If you’re like me and you’re waiting for the crash, just stay patient until she marries Shia LaBeouf. Give her a decade and watch what happens when Transformers 6 doesn’t do so well because she has popped out triplets, put on a little weight, and adopted her own herd of Malaysian kids.

The fluorescence of one room bleeds into another with only minor differences: a blinking flicker here, a snoring hum there. I sit again beneath these flickers and hums, just past 9:00 pm, in thesalamina da sugo workshop, ready for the gentle myth, ready for some anarchy. This is the Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food Movement’s Salon of Taste and, while this is also Torino, Italy, the rest of the world, via its respective culinary delights, trickles in through the cracks in the mortar.

Tonight, a hush falls over Ferrara, a small city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Talk of its indigenous salamina da sugo rarely breaches its borders. Perennially crowning the Christmas tables of the Ferrarese, the mysterious and controversial dish remains out-of-reach for the rest of the world.

The salamina was first documented in the 15th century letter from Lorenzo il Magnifico to Duke Ercole II d’Este. Apparently, the first to produce the product were the “porcaioli” of the Trentio and Bormio mountains. Pork artisans. Porcine Michelangelos. (Somebody stop me—I can go all day…).Eventually, they migrated into the Po valley, and then into the area that was to become Ferrara. Not a single discovered document mentioned salamina da sugo again, until 1722. Capturing the artistic heart and palate of writer Antonio Frizzi, salamina da sugo became the object of his poem, “Salamoide.” Frizzi writes, “I mix the pig’s liver with its meat, put an iron on top, and step on the iron.” Frizzi went on further to speculate that the pigs destined to become salamina are born carrying the spirits of all dead women. (Insert your own necrophilia joke here). In tasting it, the headphones proclaim, one has difficulty separating flavor from verse.

Often invoked as an incurable aphrodisiac, the salamina (or salama, as it is often called) was a popular meal at wedding banquets and brothels. The dish was reputed to soften the skin and add life to the blood of newlyweds, as well as prepare the “ladies of the night” for their customers. Here, tonight, call me Madam.

The night outside Torino’s Lingotto building stretches its legs, brothel-less, blows its yawn over the old Fiat factory, and the edifice itself seems to settle in a post-tasting bliss. This is the last workshop of the day, and it is run by representatives of the Slow Food Movement, their Italian taking the form of culinary protest. The translation whistles flute-like into my ears, discussing this nearly extinct breed of sausage, stirring the Slow Food Movement to educate the masses in an attempt to lift it from certain death.

This salamina is commercially-illegal. The Slow Food Movement had to hew through bureaucratic barbed-wire just to get this workshop off the ground. It is virtually number-one on Slow Food’s endangered foods list, holds a top-shelf position in their Ark of Taste.

The dish begins with the grinding of the “less noble,” but more flavorful parts of the pig: liver, tongue, belly, shoulder, chin, top neck, throat lard, cheek, thigh. The ground meat is then coupled with an array of spices—types and amounts differ with each producer. Typical spices include salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and garlic. Red wine (approximately two liters per ten kilograms of meat) is added to the mixture—usually a Sangiovese, Barbera, or Semisecco del Bosco Eliceo.Certain producers also add rum, grappa, or brandy.

The mixture is then packed into a pork bladder, tied with twine, and traditionally divided into eight segments. In a well-ventilated, dark chamber, at about fifty-degrees Fahrenheit, the salamina is hung to ripen and age for at least one year. During this time, the salamina is periodically brushed with olive oil and vinegar.

Once sufficiently aged, the salamina will bear a protective coating of white mold. Prior to preparation, the mold is rinsed away and the cased meat is soaked in lukewarm water for at least twelve hours. After the soaking session, the salamina is placed inside a cloth bag which is then tied to the center of a long wooden stick. The stick is draped across the top of a large stockpot, so that the salamina bag is hanging in the middle, away from the pot’s bottom and sides. The pot is filled with water, and the salamina cooks for about four hours at a low simmer. Once ready, the salamina is cut from the bag and gently removed from its casing with a spoon. The salamina’s wine is released during the cooking process, yielding a viscous and spicy sauce.

Three types of salamina line the plate in front of me, each cresting a small mound of mashed potato.The first is anarchic; Slow Food’s own farmers producing their ideal version, sans governmental regulation. It is pink and brown, and dripping with its internal, natural “sauce.” The next is a small farmhouse version, produced, as it has been for Italian centuries, against the rigid health department standards, left to hang for months from pig-sty rafters. The truffle of the barn. The final slice is an industrially-produced, commercially-regulated sausage that does its best to mimic salamina da sugo.The Slow Food Movement wants us to know the difference.

We lift our forks in choral unison and, slowly, like the simultaneous bowing of fifty veiled heads, bring them to our plates as we are instructed to taste the first. Upon biting, the salamina oozes smoky gravy into our mouths, collecting a texture somewhere between ground meat and rose-oil. If this sausage were a cheese, it would be baked brie. Just by chewing together, with our arsenal of taste-buds, we march on Roma with torches ablaze.

The farmhouse salamina a little less sweet, but just as runny, scampering over the tongue like a mouse, feet soaked in licorice. Together, we burp terrestrial elegies. The industrial version is tasty, but common, a mere smoked sausage injected with hormones and cardboard crumbs. We sneer. We save the whales.

We have tasted, the thin, black-haired representative declares with a snap of his fingers, what may be the last barely legal taste of salamina da sugo, ever. After this Salone del Gusto, the book may very well be closed. I imagine an Underground, gathering in windowless attics, reading by candlelight, ancient farmland recipes, and passing samples of this banned foodstuff. We will weep over the crushing of pleasure in favor of the illusion of health. We will smoke banned cigars, drink banned liquor, and toast to anarchic sausage. We, and the salamina, will survive in the basements of the world.

This black-haired representative of Slow Food widens his eyes and stares, cultishly, into the ceiling’s holy, but fleeting fluorescence…

supercool1

Here they are in Disney World with matching princess-mouse hats. The sun shines warmly on their painted faces this November afternoon.

Grace, eight years old, loud mouthed, freckled, athletic, proud, and protective, stretches her arms across the railing behind her. Her chin is high, and the blue sky stretches into eternity behind her as she gazes thoughtfully into the distance, but out of the corner of her eye, she checks you out and sizes you up. The star on her forehead marks her as a visionary.

Does Nick Cave know about my love life?

I found out my wife was cheating on me. Not the greatest feeling in the world after a decade of marriage. I admit, there were times when I met another attractive woman and thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could just…but I put that thought right out of my mind and went home a committed guy.

Not that sex was the only thing to the petit mess that our marriage was. There was me, the writer, and what she thought the writing life style would bring her.

When we dated, I was the quirky artist guy. She thought listening to Nirvana made her alternative and Nora Roberts was literature. We’d go to my place and make out to Tom Waits on the turntable and I’d send her home with a Bukowski book. Did I mention we were Jehovah’s Witnesses? A woman who read anything other than a Watchtower publication was pretty alternative in my universe as a 25-year-old virgin. I was seen as quite a threat to the congregation elders for not keeping up in my bible reading and spending many nights at the public library reading Burroughs and educating myself in the world of literature. Unfortunately the belief system of God’s day of judgment entangled the synapse of my brain, so I had to keep my alternative reading and music cravings on the down low in those days.

A couple of years into our marriage I made a lot of money in the computer industry, which in turn paid to kickstart her career. I gave up the job early enough, before it sucked my soul, to pursue writing. The computer career only worked because I was smart and understood operating systems, not because I actually pursued it in school or anything. I had a tendency of disappearing from my cubicle for an hour reading Tolstoy in the bathroom or sneaking out to Gregg Araki’s latest film. I was excellent at my job at a hands on level, but not a corporate guy who really gave a crap about the future of Sun Microsystems.

In my ex-wife’s mind, my decision to become a writer meant that we would frolic with Danielle Steele at society events. I would make Stephen King caliber money and the film adaptations would pay for her shoe-buying habit. We’d both survive the upcoming apocalypse because I’d write under a pen name.

Let’s back up.

Our first date was a Nick Cave show…don’t tell the elders. There was a silence in the crowd when I yelled for Nick to play one of my favorite songs, Hard On For Love.

“What?” Nick turned around to our side of the stage and walked in our direction.

“Play Hard On For Love!”

“We have our set taken care of, thank you,” Nick replied and hearts spilled out of my eyes and onto the floor. Nick Cave was my favorite musician and I had just had a conversation with him.

From there:

  • Marriage. Sex. Wow, it’s warm in there.
  • I keep writing and taking the wife to see live bands. Don’t tell the elders.
  • I make more money than I ever make in my life and she spends it well.
  • I drop out of the religion, she freaks out and double times as a Jehovah’s Witness to get us both through Armageddon.
  • I go to Nick Cave shows alone.
  • She hides my “worldly” books and places Watchtowers on the table when her mom comes around.
  • I write a novel loosely based on my experience growing up a Jehovah’s Witness teenager. Scared that her gay fashion friends will find out she’s a JW she wanted me to use a pen name. Uh, no.
  • She cheats on me.
  • She repents to the congregation elders for her adultery. They understand. I was such a bad influence.
  • She does her best to take everything monetary.

After three months of grieving, utter shock, weeping in cafes while trying to write, and drinking myself into a stupor, I finally gave it a go with a girl in bed.

Wow, it’s warm in there.

Nick Cave was scheduled for two shows at the Warfield and they were in three months. I made calculations of the women I had been seeing, kissing, dating, and really enjoying. I picked a few to test and see if they were Nick-Cave-date-worthy. We would dance and sing up front and touch Nick’s hand as he’d sweat on us. Oh, the glory of all that is Nick Cave.

I scored an interview with Nick at his hotel since I’ve been a writer and covering the entertainment scene for years. Nick Cave. My favorite singer and me at his hotel.

I interviewed him over the phone before, but never in person. I didn’t tell him about my divorce. Or how I held a personal contest to win a date with me and go to a Nick Cave show. I did tell him I asked him to play Hard On For Love years before at one of his shows.

“What did I say?” Nick asked.

“Our set’s taken care of, thank you,” I replied, remembering every word, every smell of our history together. I told him I stopped yelling out songs at his other shows because I didn’t want to interrupt.

“We probably just didn’t know how to play it,” he said and told me how the version they had in their set for the tour is a lot harder than the recorded version.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds hadn’t played Hard On For Love at any show for twenty years. They wouldn’t play it when I was with my ex-wife, and it took him until 2008 to put it in his set.

None of the ladies were Nick-Cave-date-worthy. I went to the show alone. Dateless.

Inside the Warfield I saw some friends at the front of the stage and stood behind Lia, a girl I had been a friend with for a while. We danced and we sang and Nick Cave sweated on us.


Then, Nick said, “This next song is for you in the hat.” I was wearing a hat and he pointed in my direction in front of everybody at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. I pointed at myself and said, “Me?”

“Yeah, you with the facial condition,” referencing my bushy mustache.

The girls next to my friend in front of me yelled, “His name is Tony, His name is Tony.”  They didn’t know I interviewed him earlier and we talked about Hard On For Love, giving the illusion that Nick and I were really tight. The band went into the song and my friend Lia held my hand and everything flashed before my eyes.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Marriage. Betrayal. Divorce.
  • The animal drive in my life that craves literature, music and film.
  • Holding hands with Lia. It’s not a date, but a great person to share the moment with.

Lia and I hung out a lot after that show. Still high on Nick Cave. Bar hopping and meeting up as buddies until one night it hits me…..there’s more to us than friends. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she’s strong and I wasn’t used to someone like her. I messed up our friendship, but she agreed to mess it up as well and now she’s my girlfriend.

I reflect on how Nick Cave wouldn’t play my request for Hard On For Love when I was with my ex-wife. How he never played it through my whole marriage. Then, when I’m there with the right girl…whom I didn’t even know was in the romantic running, let alone the perfect date for a Nick Cave show….then, not only does Nick Cave perform the song, he dedicates it to me.

I am the fiend hid in her skirt
And it’s as hot as hell in here
Coming at her as I am from above
Hard On For Love.

Hard On For Love performed in Croatia on YouTube


Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?

On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e5CENKp5eYU/Sd5UyzPlj3I/AAAAAAAABPE/2Frsu4D8HOY/s320/pierre-bayard.jpgHe also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.

Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.

As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”

Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”

As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.

http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/2008/11/custom_1227303927991_michiko-kakutani_01.jpgThe truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!

Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?

I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.

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Today is the official release date of Totally Killer, my first novel.

That’s what my oh-so-brief bio leads you to believe, anyway. “This is his first novel,” it says, as if I’d suddenly decided, after floundering about for the first thirty-five years of my life, to bang out a book, and a few months later, voilà.

As Hemingway concluded in his first novel, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I sit in my white Reem Acra duchess satin gown in a room on the second floor of The Metropolitan Club with everyone I know just downstairs waiting for me, the bride.

Down those great big stairs is Jay, my future husband.  My mother flutters about.  I am sure waiters are about to trip and spill green apple martinis all over me and ruin 13 months of planning.  I take a breath. 

My father is not by my side, not here to give me away.  He is dead.  A suicide when I was four.  This is the fact of my life I expect people to know about me instantly.  My defining layer.

Then there is Stanley, sitting right next to me, our knees almost touching, like a protector from errant waiters, his tuxedo jacket almost like a superhero’s cape.  He was once my step-father, now my adopted father.  I still feel a little like a liar, like alarms will blare and the truth police will arrive when I refer to him as my “father” though.

I first met Stanley when I was about nine at Kennedy airport.  He came to pick us up after a trip.  There he was down the long hallway along with everyone else’s someone special.  My mother seemed to know him as evidenced by the hugs and kisses.  But I was unsure.  I couldn’t sleep in my mother’s bed anymore.  He encouraged me to make my own friends and not hover by my mother’s side.  I found him suspicious.

Now twenty three years later here we are at my wedding.  This man by my side.

Is it okay to admit that I recognize how important a father is at a daughter’s wedding?  Is it okay to admit I still mourn for a man I barely knew?  Is it okay to admit I still expect him to show up?

“This is everything I’ve ever wanted,” I say to Stanley.  My voice cracks and I can feel the tears.  I feel as if I am the only person to have ever done such a thing before.  He looks at me as if, perhaps, I may just be the first bride ever. 

 

When Jay and I went for our marriage license, I had all the proper papers with me.  Passport.  Birth Certificates.  Driver’s license.  We filled out all the forms.  I was overwhelmed and surprised that there was a space for my new name.  New name?  That is the hardest part of all.  No one in my family when I was growing up had my name, since my mother remarried.  I want my children to share my name, that means taking Jay’s, giving up my father’s.  I didn’t know I had to do it then.  I thought I could think about it, ease into it.

I had thought about changing my name once before.  Stanley and I sat in some judge’s chambers finalizing the adoption.  I was about 19.  I wanted to speak up, declare I wanted his name.  I wanted to please him so, but something kept me quiet. 

“Don’t do it then, just leave it,” Jay said.

I filled the space in the form.  Rachel Schinderman.  I took it as an option.  I hated that part of it.  A claiming of.  But was I upset because I wouldn’t be claimed as my father’s anymore?  My father who I go out of my way to remember and to celebrate.  My father who left me.

I handed over all of my papers.  The woman was perplexed when she saw I had two men listed under father.  I handed her both birth certificates.  I was issued a new one after the adoption with Stanley’s name.  She looked at me as if no other person had ever come before her window with such a situation.  I found that impossible.  She went deep within her area and conferred with others.  They looked over at me with that’s her in their eyes. 

She came back and declared, as if she were the ultimate authority in New York State, that since I had the same name as one of them, Jeffrey Zients, that that was who would be listed.  Fine.

She turned to her computer.  “How do you spell Jeffrey?”

“J-e-f-f…”  Was it an e or an r, Jeffrey or Jeffery.  I picked up the birth certificate to check.  “J-e-f-f-r-e-y.”

Jay took my hand.  He could see that I was upset, that I didn’t know off the top of my head how to spell my father’s name with no uncertainty.

Even at the City Clerk’s Office, he was with me.  I tried to shake him off.  As we waited in the next line, I leaned into Jay’s arm.  I was so sorry I was crying.  This was a happy time.


My mother, Stanley and I take our place in the hall before the stairs, the stairs I have worried about for almost a year.  The club’s coordinator gets the go-ahead on his walkie-talkie and signals us to go.  The string quartet below begins to play Over The Rainbow.  We come into view for all below to see. 

My dress is more difficult to manage than I had thought.  My mother holds my arm securely.  We are already almost halfway down.  Stanley isn’t holding me, just standing by my side and grasping the railing on the other.  He won’t even come near me.  I must have been too vocal about not making me trip down the stairs – or is he just moving from spot to spot, playing this role, making his way through?  Is he my “father,” getting to walk me down the aisle because he pays for the wedding?  What does this mean to him?

“I need you to hold me,” I whisper in his ear. 

He looks surprised at my request for help, as if to say all you had to do was ask, like he didn’t want to intrude on me.  He takes my arm solidly in his and we continue down even further.

I kiss my parents and Jay greets them.  As I let them go and take my place next to Jay, I am suddenly calm, even giggly.

Jay turns to me and makes his promises, his vows.  I hear bits.  Pieces.  I can feel my body curl in, taking him and the moment into me.

Then I make my vows to him.  “…And when I need to cry, as I sometimes do, you never say, ‘just get over it.’”

I see the rabbi lean back, surprised by the thought, taking it in.

I dab my tears and we smile at each other, grasping the other’s hand.  Hard part’s over.

Jay steps on the glass.  We kiss.  And everyone yells, “Mazel Tov!”  Then we hurry back down the aisle together, married.

I am thirty-two, almost eight months into being thirty-two.  My father was thirty-two, just over seven months when he died.  I have made it past the length of his life.  This is a good way to mark it.

When we all settle and sit at our tables, Stanley rises and heads to the microphone.  I sit up a little higher in my chair, ready for this moment, a father’s toast to a daughter.  I really get one.  Will this actually count as a father’s toast?  I don’t know what he will say.  A stepfather’s?  I hope it is more than just “Welcome and please have a good time.”

“First of all, thank you very much for coming here tonight and simply joining us.”  Adopted father’s?  “I think there is just a bit of a void that should be addressed and I would like to address it.  And I would like to say a few words on behalf of someone who is not here tonight.  And I guess I’m speaking to all of you, but I’m really speaking directly to Rachel.”

I look for my mother.  Her face reads stunned.  She didn’t know this is what he was going to do.  I look back for Stanley in the center of the big dance floor, holding the microphone, tiny in his tuxedo.  I remind myself to pay great attention.  Do not get lost to the emotion.  Is this really what he’s doing?

“I would like to say a few words for Jeff Zients.”

Yes, it is and I couldn’t have imagined it, couldn’t have dared to dream it.  I didn’t know it was just what I wanted.

“I think if Jeff Zients were here, he would tell Rachel certain things.  I think he would tell Rachel that he marvels at how a four year old has developed and turned into a wonderful, truly wonderful young human being.  And Rachel is marvelous, I think Jeff would say in many ways, not the least of which I think is her respect for tradition, for family, and, maybe most of all, her respect for respect itself.  And I think Jeff would tell Rachel he loves her very much because of that.”

Hearing his name, Jeff, over and over, is a sound that is strange but lovely.  I can feel it enter me each time.

“I think, however, most of all, what Jeff would say is that I love you because you are my daughter and you will always be my daughter and for eternity you will be my daughter…I think Jeff would have said those things, and if I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, it is not too late for it to be said appropriately.  For myself, I think I would only like to say one thing, if in fact what I believe Jeff would have said, he would have said, ‘Rachel my love, he is speaking for me also.’  We love you.  Thank you.”

There is a silence in the air.  I go straight to Stanley, hug him and am at a loss.  This is more than I ever could have imagined.  A true fatherly moment.  I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by Stanley.  But I wear my father’s death as a badge, a shield.  Have I kept him at an arm’s length?  Fatherless is how I identify myself.

 

There is always a little broken place.  That little broken place reminds me that such events do not go away all wrapped up pretty in a box, but rather need tending to, and when tended to properly, they sleep and rest and allow you to tend to other things.

I know my history will not all be gone after today, but I do not care.  I have a husband.  A mother.  A father.  High above in this ballroom that puts us dancing on the same level as the tips of the trees in Central Park, we dance jumping high off the ground, up toward the sky, through the tall city buildings, into the night.  Pounding and thumping the dance floor each time we come back down. 

Jump!  Jump!   

Then up again we go, up, up we jump. 

Jump!  Jump! 

Jumping for joy.

For on this day I became one man’s wife and another man’s daughter. 

The story of ‘my most-memorable train ride’ is often elicited, and appropriately renamed, by many differing topics of conversation.  Sometimes it’s somebody talking about how drunk they got one night, or how paranoid.  Occasionally, it’s just a mention of hash, or how hash is more prevalent in Europe than it is in America.  On these occasions I sometimes change the tale to include words like devilish or exotic, giving it a more melodramatic air, and am sure to mention the many strange smells that passed by my nose that night.  My favorite point of entry is when somebody brings up chardonnay, or languages, or anything to do with translation, because it always gives me warrant to start the story early enough to really set up the wonder and horror of the night.

The train was the overnight from Lisbon to Madrid and I was nineteen, maybe two months in on a semester abroad program in Spain.  I was with two other students, Peter and Beth.  Peter was a bit older for college, maybe twenty-three, but it was all in good fun for him, his parents having owned this or that company that secured him a life of ease.  Beth was beautiful, and had the most charming quality in that one could never quite tell if she was utterly daft or simply demure.  I used to take her out for drinks, with the two of us talking for hours, me never taking my eyes off of her pleasant face, and I could just never tell, was she dumb, or just mysterious?  She was the sort of girl that made a man question his own judgment.

We three had spent the weekend in Lisbon collecting memories fit for any adventure in a foreign land.  There was the cab driver when we first arrived who told us to watch out for hash dealers.  (Actually, he told us to watch out for dishonest hash dealers, as they tended to show you a great piece of hash and then sell you a hash look-a-like that was really some kind of compacted chocolate.)  There was the famous pastry shop which sold little half-dozen boxes of something like custard pie and which was so busy, bustling, and baffling as to feel more like a crazy buy-run at a stock exchange than a simple bakery.  On the beach, the morning before we were set to go home, we watched fishermen pull a net onto the shore that had been dragged over a mile out by a tiny, two-man boat.  The fishermen then picked a small amount a fish from a large pile of mostly jellyfish, jellyfish that the men would pick up with their bare hands and toss aside back onto the sand, probably to die.  Later, we found an old book store which housed old, dirty comics from the fifties down in the basement.  I had picked up a little novel there, one of the few choices the shop had in English.  It was a strange, embarrassingly erotic story that a professor of ancient Persia wrote about a young man of maybe fourteen, who suddenly became the sultan, and was basically trapped and confronted by all the mystery and maliciousness of the harem.  I had sat alone by the water with that book for maybe seven hours before we all boarded the train back to Madrid and had decided, once everything was well stashed in my bunk, to join everyone in the dining car, the one place on the train where there was room enough to be sociable.

Wine was still new to me then, and Peter offered me a glass of what he was having first thing upon sitting next to him and Beth in the dining car.  There is nothing quite like the sudden shift a semester abroad in Europe brings for a youth than the ability to eat, drink, and smoke, freely, openly and, more often than not, all at once, with no thought of taboo.  Even two months into the experience, and feeling practically native, I relished it, and set a pack of cigarettes in front of me the way a guy places quarters to reserve the next big game on the pool table.

I think, between my options of a cold ham sandwich and something that might have been chicken, I must have chosen the sandwich, because whatever I ate it was salty and meager, and I recall needing a second glass of whatever this delicious vintage had been, right away.  I asked the server what it was that I had been drinking, what it was called, hoping he was one of the staff who would understand and tolerate my moderately broken Spanish.  “El Blanco,” he said, and gestured towards a series of bottles behind him.

“Ah…si.”  I tried to scrunch up my face and raised my eyebrows thoughtfully, hoping it would look impressed by the details he had provided.  “Yes, the white.  Yes, well…that was very good, thank you.  I think I’ll have another.”  Two glasses, as they tend to do, turned to three.  I had never been much of a drinker, having something of a hereditary curse as a hybrid between my father and mother’s constitutions.  My father’s side of the family could drink, and did.  My mother’s couldn’t.  The result was the ability to drink whatever I wanted quickly and impressively, often finishing my first three before anyone else had done with their one.  This would be followed by a wink, smile, and subsequent vomiting, which in turn would be followed by hallucinations of a mother who, I am sure, had told me so.  But Europe had tempered my own constitution, developed it to enjoy the finer things, and I had been encouraged by a number of fantastic nights with few regrets.  The four of us sat there, laughing over our weekend and over our drinks, trying each to recall which moments had been more amazing.

While Peter was telling a pot story (Peter was nearly always telling a pot story because Peter was a California pothead and had, for the entirety of the two months abroad, being trying to find marijuana in an area of the continent which was essentially without), I absently reached for my pack of cigarettes and leaned in to ask the server for an ashtray.  He handed me one from behind the counter while pointing out towards the end of the table and said something too quickly for me to understand.  I looked where he had pointed and saw an old Portuguese gentleman sitting there, leaning hard against the bar, with the same bottle of the wine I was drinking in front of him.  “Oh, yes, si.  El vino es muy bueno.”  I told the server how much I liked it and thought, since he’d asked, that I had better have another.  I asked him for one and lit my cigarette.

“No, no, no!” The server started yelling, waving his hands back and forth.  He pointed out towards the bottle again.  He said ‘fuera,’ outside. 

Peter noticed and said, “yeah, guy did the same thing to me earlier.  You have to smoke out there, in between the cars.  I guess it’s a non-smoking dining cart.”  I winced, feeling a bit let down by my first real prohibition from the relishing free-for-all, and gestured to the group that we ought to step out for some fresh air.

The smoking area, as it were, was nothing more than a pathetically enclosed section between two cars.  The way a convertible feels when its roof hasn’t quite sealed to the frame, the area was shockingly windy and open feeling and we took our places besides eight smoking men, all of us grappling for something solid to hold on to.  I had brought the ashtray that the server had given me, assuming I was meant to use it out there, and felt damned silly, watching my ashes fly around everywhere but the ashtray, until I noticed that each of the men was holding an ashtray as well.  I smiled at them, lifting up my useless ashtray, and they, in turn, lifted theirs, nodding back as we shared our little inside joke.

The smoking area turned out to be the true social arena of the train.  There was the three of us, the Americans, and then a coupling of four other nationalities: two Spaniards, two Portuguese, two Italian and two, well, we never did figure out where the last two were from.  And with this mix, we shared stories.  The details of the stories, like some great game of telephone where you start with, ‘the boy sat on the chair,’ and end up with some warning about a purple monkey, are all impossible to remember.  In one story, the last two gentlemen, the two from lands unknown, were laughing feverishly.  They agreed on key details and passed them on to the Italians.  The Italians, in turn, would recount most of what they had heard to the Portuguese, who then explained things to the Spanish.  After laughing for some while, the Spanish then told me, and I pieced together enough of what I’d understood, along with whatever extra details were needed to make sense of things, to let my friends in on the joke.  Meanwhile, the other passengers were standing there, waiting expectantly, timing my explanation of the story with how they knew it.   “…and so he tells her, he already had his shots,” I finished,  and the smoking area erupts.  Everyone laughs.

The night goes on like this for an hour or so, with pauses for heated discussions on what word, exactly, one was trying to say.  Peter and I get into an argument with the Italians over who’s the better actor, DeNiro or Pacino.  There’s lots of hand gestures.  Our friend, Beth, the attractive, blonde one who speaks the least Spanish, gets the most attention, and the men gesture extra hard in jumbled conversation with her.  I dropped in and out of the smoking area, sometimes leaving for the bathroom, sometimes for another glass of the white, and would always return to massive confusion, where Peter is pretty sure that someone mentioned hash to him and Beth isn’t sure who touched her ass.

As things went on, Peter seemed to befriend one of the Portuguese fellows.  He was tall and swarthy and looked just the way a seasoned traveler ought to, with long, dark hair, and a satchel at his side.  It might have been the language barrier, and I’m sure part of it was, but he had a way of trying very desperately to explain everything he wanted explained to us.  I watched as he spoke with Peter and Beth, his body language intent, his eyes almost too sincere, and he gave me the sort of wary feeling one has when confronted by a street poet, or homeless man.

Peter was in especially high spirits while talking with the traveler, because he had managed to meet up with a friend in that weekend Lisbon who had just come from California, a friend who had pot, and the traveler was suggesting we roll a joint of his hash mixed in with Peter’s pot.  This seemed like a very agreeable proposition to all of us.

I should pause here to catch up with the shabby job of counting my drinks.  With good conversation, I’m afraid, I’ve always had a weakness for the drink, and given the mighty bout of international conversation, coupled with the sheer strain of desperate translation, I had been thirsty, by this point, for about seven drinks.  I mention this because, as most will attest, it is precisely at seven drinks that many of us start making our best and worst decisions, where judgment seems to flip entirely on its own head, so that good ideas are bad and bad ideas are just the thing.

As drugs go, and without words, the four of us moved in unison out of the smoking area, through the dining car, and into the aisle of one of the quiet, mostly dark sleeper cars.  The traveler had papers, and we watched as he went through the careful motions of rolling a joint, pressing here and there with this thumbs, tamping down the mix of pot and hash with his forefingers, making careful work of the ritual.  Peter, the main supplier, got the first hit, with the traveler going next.  When it came to me I enjoyed it, slowly, free to breathe in deeply with my lungs, already hardened by cigarettes.  As I smoked, the traveler spoke.  Most of it was in Portuguese, as his English was quite bad, and I tried, as I had before, to pick out certain words, anything that sounded like something in Spanish.  He spoke of light, of a road or roads, and often of a girl or girls whom he seemed to know intimately.  I passed the joint on, noting the dry, pasty texture in my mouth, breathing in the air of the sleeper car as if to ready my body for a ride.

As we stood there, the four of us puffing and passing, my joy, my being in the moment, turned to criticism. The traveler, as a person, seemed wholly impractical.  I’ve never been a fan of people who lean on the new age side, and I became very paranoid that this man, that all of his words, his pleadings for something to do with the light, his love of the road or roads, girl or girls, were all just, well, there was no intelligible word for it except ‘nonsense,’ really.  It’s bullshit I thought, all bullshit.  And I resented his suave and his sexy.  He was exactly what you’d expect in that kind of moment, hair masking just one of his eyes, his mouth never quite smiling but always seeming positive or intense.  There were moments in his stories that he’d pull his eyes back from some distant thought and look right at Beth, with Peter and I left out as clearly as if he’d grabbed her by the arm and pulled her aside.  It was jealousy, plain and simple.  I still didn’t have a fix on whether Beth liked me or not.  She never seemed quite eager for me to make a move, but then again, she’d always say yes to going out for a drink, and in the same way, she didn’t seem to reject the attention of this traveler or ask for it either.  I was leaning against the wall of the sleeper car now, my back curled and rolling against the metal surface as I rocked to and fro with the rhythm of the train.

In retrospect, there are many points in any long night when one has the opportunity to call it quits and go to bed.  It must have been the jealousy, because I didn’t take one of them.  Past two or three in the morning, I sat there with Beth and the Traveler, playing some kind of physical defense between the two.  Peter had long since gone to our bunks to pass out, and by this time I was sitting on the floor myself, afraid to leave, but too tired to make any real show of things.  I figured that without me, with so much language barrier, there wasn’t much for them to say.  I figured maybe I could just leave, and they’d be too confused to go on.  But he was a man, and she was a woman, and I also figured that such obstacles had been overcome before, as nature designed them to.  So there I sat, patiently, annoyingly, sipping on my final glass of wine, listening to the traveler, interjecting half-hearted critiques of his tales, and giving up just as quickly as the translation became too difficult.  Finally, the night was called.  Beth and the traveler hugged farewell, and he and I shook hands, giving a measure of due respect for our roles well played.  I had won.  That is, until I stood up.

The rest of my night was a blur in the worst of all ways.  Mostly, people refer to the end of their nights as a ‘blur’ because they only remember bits of them.  For me, I remember everything, but it was as though the recording of the memory was flawed, like watching a home movie a kid might have shot, the lens never quite settling on one image or another.  I remember everything, and all of it is blurry.

The spins had set in first, a deep, internal, swinging of the senses, like a carnival ride you can’t get off.  I had given a polite but urgent goodnight to Beth and made what felt like a quick and nearly dignified run down the corridor of the sleeper car, my hands planting themselves against the walls to steady myself, my footsteps a slow, purposeful count in my head.  Bed.  Bed was the only answer.  And then, swinging myself up to my top bunk, bed was the worst thing ever.  In bed it was dark, dark enough for the spinning to really grab me, to suck me down like a drain.  I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom, certain I was falling off the end of my own mind.

Our train had two unfortunate qualities of design.  First, there was only a bathroom on every third sleeper car, and second, every sleeper car was an exact mirror of the one before it, so that traveling from one car to the next one had the utterly discouraging feeling that you had just come from exactly where you ended up, a kind of twilight zone effect in real life.  I was dashing between the cars now, debilitatingly sick and yet still paranoid and self-conscious enough that I didn’t want to make a mess in the bathroom nearest my bunk.  Somehow, I had decided that this would lead back to me, and the shame of it, of everything that I thought was coming, was enough to keep me moving.  From one car to the next I ran, each car looking just as the one I had left, only reversed, the path now on the right, the rooms now on the left.  It was completely dark outside, so despite there being windows all along the aisle, the lights inside the cars made them all reflect, and the feeling, along with the rumbling below my feet, and the seemingly never-ending maze of cars compounded my nausea and paranoia to an extent usually reserved for villains at the end of their run.

Finally reaching the bathroom, I locked the door, inhaled deeply and threw-up in the sink, not even able to make it to the toilet.  The sink was tiny, built for compact and bare use like a sink in an airplane.  I collapse on the floor and huddled myself against a low towel rack with no towels to comfort me.  The next three hours were utter misery.  I had managed to take my contacts out and put my glasses on in the bunk before trying to get to bed, and squatting there I took them off and put them back on again, over and over, neither my stomach nor senses at ease with a clear world or a blurry one.  The sink, too small for more than the rinsing of hands, was filled over with my vomit, and as the train rocked and rolled along, so did the vomit.  Occasionally, it splashed out, the way water might out of a bathtub in a happier moment.  Except for the sick, shame was the only feeling I had, sitting there in a wrecked bathroom, with bits of my vomit splashing against me along with the motions of the train.  ‘Wretched’ is the word.  I was, and was feeling, wretched.  After those hours in the bathroom, I tried to get up again, tried to make it to my bunk, and did so, thankfully, without waking up Peter or the other passengers in our room.

Morning had come, and as the train began to slow for the station I awoke, and ran off, still sick, but nearly sober, down the corridor with all of my luggage, locking myself in a new bathroom.  I was too embarrassed to go back to the first bathroom, and tried my best to clean myself up, rinsing my mouth, changing my sweater, wiping little dried, pink specs from my glasses.

When the train finally pulled in, I left quickly, and hurried along the platform towards the exit, hoping my friends might find me eventually, but too scared to wait around in case anyone called after me, half expecting some train authority to seal off the station.  I looked back at the car that I had exited from, and counted back two, three, four cars, to the car with the bathroom that I had destroyed.  It was a disgrace.  It was disgraceful.  I pictured some poor bastard who worked there, checking all the rooms after the passengers had left, finding the state of that bathroom.  I pictured some other, poorer bastard, who didn’t even find it, but who was called in to clean it. 

The night had been amazing.  I had learned about, and communicated with people from all over Europe.  We had connected, in some way, and really fought for that communication.  And the night had gone on, and so had the drinks.  I had been a free agent, a man on my own, living my own life, living the memories I had set out to find.  A joint had led to conversation, and conversation led to jealousy over a school-boy crush.  All of it had led to the bathroom, like some great, tragic catharsis of all my travels.

I stood there, at the end of the platform, looking back at that haunting sleeper car.  Some messes don’t deserve to be cleaned up, not by anyone.  Better that they just detach the car, haul it to some great train graveyard, some place where I could go, years later, to laugh about the experience, and lower my voice, and tell my children, “be careful, because amazing nights can lead to disgrace, and no beautiful memory should end with ‘I told you so.’”

Filling In

By Kristen Elde

Memoir

April 2007

“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.

As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”

Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”

Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.

Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.

He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.

I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.

In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.

We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…

I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.

We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.

I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.

It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.

We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.

The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.

Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.

Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.

 

I woke to the most awesome bright light. It was insufferably bright, in fact, and hurt my head tremendously. I could hear a terrible pounding and I wasn’t sure if that was the headache or the light making me crazy, but after a minute of lying there, I realised it was my door.

“Dude!” Thomas said, laughing almost to the point of falling down the stairs. “Holy shit!”

“Fuck off,” I told him. “What the fuck are you makin’ that goddamn racket for? Banging on my door at this hour…”

I looked down at myself as I said this, and then the strangest thing happened. It was almost as though I flew up and out of my body and looked down upon myself from a place by the ceiling. I could see Thomas at the door, wearing a black polo shirt and beige cargo shorts, laughing and looking away, and there was me – my hair was wild and bedheaded, I was stooped from the hangover, and I was butt naked. Worse, I was holding a fistful of red chilli peppers, and there was a red chilli paste smeared on my stomach. On the floor around my feet there were a dozen oranges and a giant carving knife.

Joyously Obscene

By Mary Hendrie

Essay

I learned to curse from the kids down the road. I don’t know where they learned it. Maybe they snuck into the living room late one night and watched Cinemax. Or maybe someone let them listen to that George Carlin bit (Carlin, of course, has become my cursing idol – what an appreciation for language that man has). They knew all the basics and a few interesting combinations. I didn’t know what “fuck” meant but understood it to be foul and taboo, so the combination “buttfuckers” struck me as joyously obscene. We were the kind of kids who integrated new words into our vocabulary by shouting them while jumping on the trampoline, leaping off the bed or bounding from one piece of furniture to another trying not to touch the floor — lava, obviously. If you had first encountered cursing in such a magnificent, joyful, wild atmosphere, you would love it, too. Few things entertain me more than the thought of my eight-year-old self in mid-air shouting “buttfuckers” with glee.

I love cursing the way I love beer. It is a guilty love, one that cannot possibly be good for me, one that concerns my mother a little. In high school, she heard me singing along with Ani DiFranco: “I may not be able to save the whole fucking world, but I can be the million that you never made.” Mom sighed. “I guess you and your friends all talk like that, don’t you?” I recently sent an invitation to a small sampling of my rather large Catholic family — only to the ones who already know i don’t go to church — inviting them to read my blog. It was another tentative step into the online world of self-promotion in which the line between enthusiasm and shamelessness is thinning by the day. The invitation included a suggestion that my family members could share the blog with anyone they know who might be interested, but it also came with a warning: “If you know anyone with a strong aversion to four-letter words, this may not be the kind of thing they’ll want to read.”

This e-mail lead to a conversation with my Mom in which I explained how I really do need to improve my vocabulary and she said how she loved Julie and Julia except for all the cursing, which she found not so much offensive as simply unnecessary and distracting. I could relate. I’m always talking about how writers have annoying and distracting habits that they seem to have been trying out for effect, but the effect just didn’t come out so well.

But I also believe cursing can be used to great effect, like the time my brother talked our mom and sister into a staged argument in the mall parking lot. My sister Katie, generally recognized as the polite one in the family, called shotgun as we all went to get in the car. My mother, more commonly known as the nicest lady ever born, voiced her objection.

Mom: No, I want to ride in the front.

Katie: But you always get to ride in front.

Mom: Fuck you, Katie.

Seriously, it was priceless. Just the briefest moment of shock passed until we all realized our mom would never use that word. John, who had orchestrated the scene, couldn’t contain his smile. Mom has probably blocked it out, but to me it was completely unforgettable.

Cursing does a lot for me, actually. There are those who call it cheap, low class, anti-intellectual, a sign of a weak mind, a foul temper and a lacking vocabulary. All these things are true, of course. But sometimes, my mind is weak, my temper foul, and my vocabulary lacking — there’s no getting around it — I run out of words sometimes.

In college, I took a women’s self-defense class for credit. I was OK at sparring. I learned the moves and did the exercises, even lost a couple pounds. Found out I could hit pretty hard, too. For the final exam, we had to fend off an attacker (a former cop or something, a man paid to show up in padding and a cup and threaten us). I was terrified. I had stage fright, for one thing. I knew I could hold my own against a classmate; I’d even given my friend a bloody lip by accident one time. But I was afraid of the pressure of not getting mugged (or raped or killed) in front of the whole class. I was afraid I couldn’t let fly witht he fists on a total stranger. Our teacher had instructed us to keep shouting “no” at the attacker as we fought him, and being raised in the polite tradition of “yes,” I was afraid I couldn’t raise my voice against him.

When my turn came, we stood in the center of the room, encircled by my classmates, acting convincingly like total strangers until he said, “Hey lady, can I play with your titties?” No kidding. Fucker gets paid to say this shit. I was shocked, but the adrenaline rushed in like a title wave as I shouted, “Fuck no!”

My classmates laughed a little. We were all surprised by my voice, considering I’d been labeled as “the nice one” by our teacher. The attacker grabbed my arm, and then I fought him. I fought him like hell, and I didn’t care anymore if he had a cup on. My classmates were chanting, “No! No! No!” with every punch, and I was going to ruin his day. Ruin his life. Ruin his family tree. After class, he took off his protective gear and we all talked for a few minutes. He was a nice guy, in his 50s, a grandfather, but still terribly fit. He was harmless after all, and he’d been there to help us learn our own strength. He helped me find my own voice, that’s for sure. And as vulgar as anyone may think it is, I know exactly what I’ll say if a real attacker ever tries to touch me.

What I told Mom was that when you’re trying to hang with geniuses, professional journalists, people with PhDs and book contracts and all you’ve got going for yourself is a spunky attitude and a foul mouth, it leaves something to be desired. It can make you feel pretty ignorant. And yet, there’s something satisfying about being a high school girl and using the word “cunt” to unsettle boys who’d never seen one. Truthfully, after exchanging e-mails with certain very literate friends, I do hit dictionary.com pretty hard, but let us never underestimate the power of a well-placed “fuck.”

I’ve been noticing with greater and greater alarm that atheism is getting more and more popular in literary and academic circles. In fact, the majority of writers and scholars believe that anyone who believes in God must be naive and stupid. You aren’t smart enough, aren’t sophisticated enough to realize that God doesn’t exist and that life is pretty much shit. As the old saying goes, misery loves company. Now I don’t claim to be some highfalutin intellectual (fingers corn cob pipe thoughtfully for effect) but my great grand-daddy left me with at least this much sense: anything that makes you miserable ain’t all that good.

What an assumption! I know, right? I’m just as sure that all atheists aren’t miserable as I am that all believers aren’t happy. However, I can honestly say from experience that many (not all) of my atheist friends seem to wear their unhappiness like a badge. They consider their terrible lots in life to be irrefutable proof of how “real” they are. This is an old idea really, suffering being equated with authenticity. As a survivor of many forms and flavors of abuse, I personally think there is nothing noble about suffering, especially when it’s self-induced. It just sucks.

I see the core of this issue as being about the concept of newness, modernity. The idea of God is ancient, so it’s not cool anymore. Cool or not, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. At some point in time if I shit on a canvas I might have gotten a gallery show because it was new, but that wouldn’t mean I’m a better artist than someone who could actually paint. For God’s sake people, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you believe there are some things that endure the test of time than who better than the G-O-D?

The literary and academic worlds are supposed to be a haven, a forum for all thoughts and ideas so what’s up with all this judgment? I’ve heard intellectuals call religious people closed-minded but isn’t it just as closed-minded to say something definitely doesn’t exist as it does? I think of the professor who has the courage, yes the courage to believe in a higher power, and the subtle and maybe not-so-subtle flak he/she might take from his/her co-workers, and it makes me sick. But not too sick because like time, God heals all wounds. Awesome.

I guess this is just another case of the old pendulum swinging back the other way again. Once upon a time people were crucified for not believing, now things have reversed and the faithful are ostracized for believing. See? I could have used the word “crucified” but no, I’m not some crazy, religious nut. Nor do I think I am right. I just think God exists insomuch as you let God exist, so hey, maybe it’s a good idea to try cracking the window open a little now and then, eh? I believe in spirituality more than some bearded, old, moody, white man in the clouds, and that spirituality has organically lead me to believe that if there wasn’t some kind of divine goodwill out there, that shit would be a lot worse than it is now. If you think that makes me crazy, well then put me in a sundress, slap my ass and call me Sally, I’m crazy.

Let me just anticipate one question: How can I believe in a God, all-knowing and all-powerful, when everything is so terrible? Well, sorry to bum out your bummers folks, but things are actually pretty good. Ah, I can almost feel the screams of protest! Why look at healthcare and Iraq and the corporations and all that. Terrible situations, agreed, but guess what, it could be a lot worse. The U.S. is a culture of complaints for which I partially blame Jerry Seinfeld and his weak, Satanic little observations, as well as a sensationalist, emotion-preying media. No, the sad truth for anyone out there addicted to the victim identity is this: everything’s okay. Life is hell only insomuch as you let it be. And I really think that is a significant part of people’s problem with faith; if there is a God than woah, what do you know, things might actually be alright.

The fact is that if I were to publicly announce that things are actually okay in some of the more popular intellectual hangouts (coffee shops, bookstores, etc), I would probably be verbally abused. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if the sexual practices of my own dear, sweet mother were called into question. My own flesh and blood mother, the very woman who brought me into this precious, wonderful world. Think about that a second.

 

 

We board the train to Kazakhstan in the middle of the night; thirty of us stuffed canned-food-style into the last three cars. Once the ticket agent at the Moscow central station found out she was dealing with performers and Gypsies, all the good tickets mysteriously sold out. We were stuck riding the back where everything swerved and rattled and swayed from side to side, like a shark’s tail.