Two senior citizens, women with a slow drawl to their aging voices, I watched as they scrabbled for information. They were desperate for it. The pair strained their ears, they were actually standing in their seats, trying to find the best angle to capture the snatches of detail. A train conductor was the one speaking, his voice being carried intermittently on the air and around the train’s door. I was interested, not in the story of the injured boy on the train track, but why these two women, completely unrelated to the whole scenario, were so desperate for information.
Rubberneckers. The train wreck you can’t look away from. The gaggle that gathers around an incident, all without shame, barefaced curiosity seekers apparently anonymous among their brothers and sisters. You see it all the time. Should a police car pull up to the curb and the blue shirts inside get out, you’re guaranteed at least one curtain will open and its owner peer outside. People love to stick their noses in. The train station I was at with the old women wringing their hands to find out what was going on, that was a non-event. I don’t know what happened, but two ambulance officers, a St John’s officer and two members of the police were poking around the train line on the other side of the station. Two young girls who seemed to know the boy were sobbing and consoling one another, “He’ll be alright, he’ll be OK,” while a policeman interviewed them. Another took photos. I bet you’re dying to know what happened. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. I didn’t find out. I looked though, snuck a peek. You’d do the same. You might be like the fellow who walked over to the other side of the station and looked over, right above the officers doing their work. He just strolled up, hands in his pockets, and looked over the edge.
I thought it was kind of rude.
I saw another incident involving a much larger gathering. Swanston Street in Melbourne, and a large crowd, about thirty or forty regular people crowded around the side of the road. This bulge of humans meant I had to walk around them to continue travelling. Unfortunately, the friends I was with detached and went to join the group. I sighed and sat down on a park bench nearby, waiting, watching as every person in that horde tried their hardest to get a better view. Like the pulsing swarm of punters at a music gig, squeezing and pushing to get to the front row. The main event here on Swanston Street was an act of violence, the aftermath, the punters hoping to get a little glimpse of the tension. At a gig you hope to get a guitar pick or drumstick to take as a souvenir. The gathering of rubberneckers were hoping for a mental photograph of the pool of blood, a broken jaw or a mashed in face. I know what happened in this scenario. Are you dying to find out? There was blood. There was a broken jaw. The police were involved. Tantalising, isn’t it? As a consequence, we were late to where we were going.
Why do people have such a macabre hunger for these sorts of events? Don’t they feel weird about it, standing over an injured boy or an arrested vagrant, staring down at them with no pretence? It’s clear they are there out of interest. I feel rude. Making it obvious I’m having a good hard look makes me uncomfortable. It seems like none of my business. The police are there, the ambulance officers are there, someone’s being treated or arrested, they’re probably a little embarrassed, or will be when they look back on it. I don’t imagine I’m helping that situation much by standing not but two feet away, staring like an open mouthed idiot. Maybe it’s just me.
Whatever the reason, all these people want the information. They want to go home and tell their friends the story that sparked up their otherwise average day. They want to store away the moment to bring out again at a party, when the conversation turns to recounts of similar stories. It’s really a purely selfish interest, a crowd of spectators without a sport.
Hello, welcome to “Cooking with Dot… So Your Family Will Love You.” Because things just haven’t been going that well lately, have they? And whose fault is that? I’m your host, Dot Hanson.
Today we’re going to be whipping up a lovely Tourtière, which is a traditional French Meat Pie… Though really, it’s not a very difficult recipe, and you know your husband just loved that wine-poached Salmon you fixed the other day. Maybe he’d like that better? He works so hard, you know, and it’s not too much to ask that he enjoys a nice meal when he gets home. Or at least that you not nag quite so much. But the Tourtière is really a breeze. Just a quick pie crust a few mixes, bake it, and it’s done.
First you’ll need to place your lard in a bowl and add the boiling water to get it nice and melted. See how nicely it’s melting there? Okay, now add your flour, baking powder, and salt, and then mix it all together… You shouldn’t need a mixer. Your hands are strong enough from all the hand-wringing you do over your son, isn’t that right? A fat lot of good it does him, too. Why can’t you just leave your meddling out of his business, anyway? There, the dough’s almost ready.
Now just go to work with your rolling pin, but try not to flatten the dough too much. You will try too hard, won’t you? Like at the party the other day… How long did it take you to tell that story about the lady at the supermarket who couldn’t find currants for you? By the time you had gotten to the part where she asked if “raisins would be good enough,” it wasn’t funny anymore. Your husband certainly wasn’t laughing anyway… God, when he rolled his eyes like that, you thought you’d just die! But anyway, you should know how to make a pie crust by this point in your life, and all this rolling is making my head hurt. So let’s move on to the filling.
You’ll want to set your potatoes boiling first, with some salt, of course. But don’t forget to save the water when they’re done. And for God’s sake, try and time everything out, because you don’t want to be just hovering in the kitchen when your daughter gets home. Things are strained enough as it is without you “How was school”-ing her to death. Honestly.
Go ahead and brown the pork now, but please, not too quickly. The butcher was closed, so you had to buy meat at the market, and that cheap stuff needs extra care. Remember the look your husband gave you the other night, when he had to pick that piece of steak out of his mouth? Haven’t we cried ourselves to sleep enough for one week?
And of course I’m assuming you’ve been grinding your sage and your thyme and clove and pepper, and chopping your celery and garlic while I’ve been talking this whole time. Don’t tell me you’ve just been standing there swinging your arms? Well, that’s attractive.
When everything’s browned and boiled and ground, you’ll take your pastry out of the refrigerator and mold it in a pie dish and add the toppings and then bake for 15 minutes on 450 degrees and then 30 more minutes on 300. And you can replace the pork filling with a pepper steak if necessary, depending on which one your husband likes better, and that requires only a few added ingredients – some chopped mushrooms and bell peppers and a cup of cubed Swiss cheese.
And there you have it. A cinch, really. But maybe you should just give that old meat pie to the neighbors and make something your family’ll actually like? I suppose it’s too late now.
Oh, but remember to brush the top with butter. The crispiness of the crust is the best part! And just think how the faces of your family will light up when they feel that little crackle. At least they’ll be distracted from the dessert that you forgot to make.
Dear, dear, what are we going to do with you? Here, I’ve got another recipe for you: A large glass of wine and a few hours flipping through the family album, dabbing at your eyes with a tissue.
This has been Dot Hanson, and you’ve been watching “Cooking With Dot… So Your Family Will Love You.”
February 28, 2011
I’m thinking I need to start thinking so I can write a piece called, “What I Think About When I Should be Thinking About Nothing While I’m Doing Yoga.” I’m thinking I need to write this because while I should be thinking about nothing during yoga, while I should be focusing on the present, focusing on my breathing, I inevitably start thinking. I think writing about it will help me stop. Thinking that is.
They said no to Novel Two.
Art’s imitation of life is not such a stranger, nor is real life masquerading as what could only be believable as fiction. Being in a punk band is a crash course in both sides of the spectrum. There are moments of such insanity, such zany freakdom that just the act of relating it years later might feel like telling a story over a campfire. Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel, alt.punk dances along this fine line of the believable, the outlandish, the hilarious and the heartfelt.
As I mentioned in my wildly popular first column (nine different Viagra spammers linked to it from southern China), my wife and I agreed that if I moved into her little yellow house on the edge of the Nordic floe known as Finland, she’d sort of support me while I kind of wrote my novel. Happily, we both fulfilled our contracts. Sadly, as many of you writer and reader types know, the publishing industry moves at the curmudgeonly tempo of a thawing mammoth. Which is another way of saying my Golden Ticket® has yet to arrive. Which is another way of saying I’m broke and desperate.
Thus I’ve come to an icy, vague, windswept crossroads of sorts. One path leads to some horrid, rend-your-soul-in-half corporate serfdom; the second leads to language school; the last one leads to a computer where I can sit and repeatedly email my agent to see if any editors have changed their minds.
While learning the native language of the country in which I’m living seems like a good idea, after seven years of higher education I’m not exactly itching to squeeze my aging skeleton into a kiddie desk for the next – not kidding – five hundred weekdays. For six to eight hours per day. Plus studying time.
Despite the rich, multi-textured dread that language school evokes, I’ve begrudgingly begun the enrollment process, which begins with an interview and some paperwork. That interview is then followed up by a meeting in which you fill out more paperwork discussing your most recent interview. That meeting is followed by an interview discussing the most recent paperwork. If all goes well, and the door to the office you’re in actually unlocks, you then return for another interview and a “language test” that can best be described as a “circle-the-word-that-is-spelled-identically-to-the-one above” test. It’s so easy that our Insane Russian Dogs could do it while gnawing on the underside of the sofa. It’s so easy you leave feeling deeply, truly stupid. I really hope I passed.
During these interviews and meetings and paperwork sessions I have been repeatedly asked what I do for a living. I won’t lie: I live for this question. Despite the fact that I rarely get paid to write, and despite the fact that my book doesn’t yet exist, and perhaps never will, I still like to give myself the cute little label of “writer –novelist.” (Some days I spend hours making these labels with my wife’s glitter pens and posing in the bathroom mirror. My author photo alone will win awards.)
So when an interviewer asks this question, my eyeballs start to shake and my heart hopscotches. I sit up straight, tilt my head eleven degrees to the northeast, and tell them exactly who I think I am.
Interviewer nods, types.
You might think such an inarguable testament of identity would be grounds for further discussion. You might think that in a country where the literacy rate is 100% – a country that reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the world – some might consider it interesting to find an aspiring semi-young American writer in their foggy midst. Fantasy and reality, however, rarely feed from the same trough. Outside of these bureaucratic settings – in two years of living in Finland – only a single person has asked me what I do, or don’t do, for a non-living. Family, friends, the children we hire to clean the polar bear’s cage – doesn’t matter. Instead we discuss: hockey, snow, snow-hockey, hockey pucks made from compacted snow, and hockey that is played on the pavement during the five summer days in which there is no snow. If I want to talk about my meta-career, I have to corner some reindeer in the back yard and bribe them with fried blueberries.
Making matters worse is the fact that my wife, who never dreamed of writing books, has not only published her first hugely successful cookbook, but has begun work on her follow-up. Instead of asking about my non-existent book, people ask me which of my wife’s dishes I am going to massacre tonight.
I am humbled by my inadequacy.
Most days it feels selfish and petty to complain about such problems when so many people are involved in much direr circumstances – revolutions, earthquakes, polar bear attacks. At the same time, writing is my own personal anarchy, a way to subsist outside of systems. Of course such a notion is purely illusion, as the only way my writing will make it to publication is via a series of systems – agent, publisher, retailer, etc. And yet again it’s a system I can abide by, one that is leaps and bounds beyond the systems I’ve spent my whole life trying to escape. Systems like the ones in which I’ve found myself entrenched since arriving in Finland.
Right now the Finnish Language System is on the horizon. Fortunately, since all of Finland remains encased in three meters of ice, I’ve got time to sit and fret and scheme. Unfortunately, Russia recently sent over a nuclear icebreaker to smash apart the ocean and bring with it the first rays of spring sunlight. In the process they’ll probably run across my career. I can only hope that when it thaws out, it isn’t already dead.
Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late in the summer of 1877. Those who rose early that morning would recall noticing a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes circling above the harbor, looping and darting about as if in an attempt to mend a tear in the firmament. Whether or not they were successful, the birds eventually slowed their swoop and settled in around the city, on the steps of the courthouse, the red tile roof of the Constanta Hotel, and the bell tower atop St. Basil’s Academy. They roosted in the lantern room of the lighthouse, the octagonal stone minaret of the mosque, and the forward deck of a steamer coughing puffs of smoke into an otherwise clear horizon. Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church. In the trees around Yakob and Leah Cohen’s house the flock seemed especially excited, chattering, flapping their wings, and hopping from branch to branch like a crowd of peasants lining the streets of the capital for an imperial parade. The hoopoes would probably have been regarded as an auspicious sign, were it not for the unfortunate events that coincided with Eleonora’s birth.
Have you ever hated anybody? I mean, really, as an adult, HATED someone? And I don’t mean a politician or a celebrity, or whatever Paris Hilton is now. I mean a person you know and see on a regular basis. Because I’ve been angry with people—temporary hateful—but it took me a really long time to straight up hate a bitch, with conviction.
Hate is a lot of work. And I am emotionally lazy.
Most of the time, I can’t be bothered. But I hated this housemate I had in college. And I don’t think of her often, but when I do think of her, I still think she is the worst. I actively hate her. Still. Like, I would be okay with it if she got hit by a bus right now. I don’t want to identify her by name (in case a bus ever does hit her, Officer), so let’s just call her Fuckface.
Because fuck her. In the face.
Fuckface and my best friend leased the second story of a house near campus the summer after our Sophomore year. But Fuckface wasn’t able to move in until the Fall, and didn’t want to pay the summer rent (understandable, I guess). So she asked my friend to find someone to move in and pay rent for three months and then move out again (less understandable, I think).
I agreed to do it—mostly so that my friend wouldn’t get screwed on the rent. I packed and moved my shit twice that summer, in order to hold that room for Fuckface. (You’re welcome, Fuckface.)
Then she moved in. And I moved to the first floor. And she became a fuckface.
She started by being a secret bitch, for my eyes only. Subsequently, I would not invite her to join us for social-fun-times. I thought she hated me. (Stay home, Fuckface!)
Then when I wasn’t around, Fuckface would tell my friend/her roommate that I hurt her feelings by excluding her. My friend would say, “Oh, Darci, you should try to be nicer to [Fuckface].” So I would be nicer. And Fuckface would be an even bigger bitch to me as soon as my friend left the room.
Finally, my friend caught Fuckface acting like Captain Asshole after I invited her to go to the movies with us. My friend stopped asking me to be nice. (Ya burnt, Fuckface!)
Yes, Fuckface was messy and inconsiderate and all the things I imagine we’ve all experienced to some degree with roommates, especially in our early 20s. But she was a special kind of asshole in that she was completely shameless about it. I’ve known people to commit bigger social crimes, but they at least have the decency to feel guilty. And the things that would upset her were ridiculous. She and I lived in separate apartments on two different floors and I would get calls like:
“Um, I can just tell that your TV is on. Could you keep it down?”
“Umm, I can hear you guys whispering. Maybe you could talk tomorrow?”
“Ummmm, I can hear your heart beating. Can you slow it down a notch? I’m trying to take a nap.”
I’m only slightly exaggerating. Fuckface expected us to stop cooking spaghetti because she didn’t like the way sauce looks when it simmers. But her sensitivity only applied to things the rest of us did. She felt free to make as much noise as she wanted, stink up the house with her weird pets, drink our beer, break our stuff and insult our guests.
And OH GOD, was she cheap. I mean, we were all broke, scraping by with shitty jobs. It’s college. I get it. But Fuckface (whose parents paid for her tuition and rent) was just obnoxiously cheap. No sharing. No hospitality. But also, no hesitation in accepting the generosity of others. She’d ask you for a favor, you’d help her out of a jam, and an hour later she’d make you give her a quarter before agreeing to split a can of Coke.
True story: For weeks, she asked every person who came over for an egg.
“Hey, umm… Do you have an egg? I have this brownie mix but it requires an egg and I don’t have an egg. And I don’t want to buy a whole dozen if I just need one egg. So I thought maybe you had an egg I could have. Oh, I mean, sure—of course you don’t have it with you. But do you have one at home? I mean, haha, right?! But also, you should go home and get an egg and bring it over and then we can make these brownies.”
I’m serious. That actually happened. FOR A MONTH.
I mean, I GUESS it makes sense to ask ME for an egg. It makes sense because I lived downstairs, and that is where I kept my groceries, which is what eggs are (unless you are a chicken). If I had an egg to give to Fuckface, and if I didn’t spend every waking moment wishing she would grow a foot out of her forehead that would kick her in her stupid face forever, then it seems like a reasonable request, and not much of an imposition for me to run downstairs and bring back an egg. ONE TIME, that question makes sense. Twelve times is excessive. To ask every day was rude and weird. And to ask our other friends (who did NOT live downstairs) to go home and bring back an egg was just insane. (You crazy, Fuckface!)
Even more kookoo-bananas was the fact that Fuckface had a part-time job at a grocery store, giving her both 24-hour access to eggs and the funds with which to buy eggs (sold by the half dozen for about 40 cents). I pointed this out once and Fuckface said (while making the bitchiest face) that it wasn’t fair for her to have to pay for 5 extra eggs. (Life’s a bitch, Fuckface.)
If I ever have a time-traveling cat, I will make him take me back to the last time Fuckface asked me for an egg. I will bring her twelve dozen Grade A extra-larges and make her watch as I break every last one of those sons of bitches into the garbage can.
Then I will set that garbage can on fire.
Then I will bake those motherfucking brownies, Vegan-style with a banana-as-egg substitute. Then I will throw the brownies into a different garbage can and set that garbage can on fire.
Then my time-traveling cat will bring me back to the present and we will high-five each other until one of us passes out.
After a few months of living with Fuckface’s weird demands, her stomping around, and her general bitchfaceness, I stopped being polite and started getting real. I officially banned her from the first floor. Then a few weeks later, just because Fuckface extra-deserved it, my roommate double-banned her from the first floor.
Hating her may have started as a single player game, but it soon became a team sport. Floor One was off limits and Floor Two’s other occupant wasn’t exactly starting a Fuckface fan club. I’m reasonably sure that if our house had a third floor, Fuckface would not have been welcome there, either. (Not on my watch, Fuckface!)
But it didn’t make any difference to Fuckface. It didn’t bother her that she lived with three people who wanted to push her down the stairs. She had no shame, and she was impervious to hints, sarcastic remarks, stink-eyes and other passive-aggressive tortures. We knew she wouldn’t consider moving out. The rent was so cheap and the house was so close to campus—she’d never find anything better, or anyone else to live with her.
We were stuck with Fuckface, and her stinky pets, and her shitty moods and her, “You should pay more of the phone bill, because the phone sits closer to your room, so I have to walk farther to use it” negotiations. We had given up any hope of getting rid of her before graduation. But then a funny thing happened, and suddenly, we were saved.
We were saved by the band Portishead.
(I know! I was also surprised.)
My roommate came home one day and started playing the then-new Portishead album, Dummy. She put the song “Sour Times” on repeat, and then zoned out, doing her homework or whatever. It wasn’t blaring at full volume, but our house was old and the walls were thin, so it was easy for any noise to travel from one floor to the other.
Fuckface started to twitch, not because the music was too loud, but because she was tired of hearing that song. She asked her roommate to call and ask us to put on a different CD. Her roommate/my friend refused to tell someone what music to not listen to in the privacy of her own home, even if that someone wanted to listen to a dopey Portishead song over and over again, and suggested that Fuckface just turn on the TV or her own radio. But that did not seem to be a viable solution to Fuckface.
Instead, Fuckface threw a tantrum. She started throwing shit on the floor and at the walls, making enough of a racket to make me think something terrible was happening. I phoned upstairs to see if the terrible something was at least happening to her.
Me: “Hey, is everything okay up there?”
FF: “Ummmm… I’m just throwing a ball around my room to try to relieve some stress.”
Me: “You’re doing what?”
FF: “I’m throwing a ball.”
Me: “What KIND of ball?!”
FF: “I said I’m STRESSED. I’m tired of hearing that song your roommate keeps playing over and over.”
Me: “Yeah, me, too. So I put some headphones on. Problem solved. Were you just stomping around up there?”
FF: “I had to make myself feel better.”
Me: “Pictures were falling down off our walls, [Fuckface]. “
FF: “Sorrrr-yyyyyy. But I had to do something.”
Me: “Of course you did.”
I hung up the phone, livid, and determined to be done with this bullshit, once and for all. I gave my roommate a quick synopsis of my phone conversation with Fuckface and then very dramatically proclaimed,
“FOR AS LONG AS THAT BITCH LIVES IN THIS HOUSE, THAT SONG WILL BE PLAYING ON THAT STEREO. ALL DAY. ALL NIGHT. WHILE WE SLEEP. WHILE WE STUDY. 24 HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK, THAT SONG WILL PLAY IN THIS HOUSE FOR AS LONG AS SHE LIVES UPSTAIRS.”
It took a few days for Fuckface to tell us she was moving out, but we kept playing “Sour Times” for another week until she was actually gone. We would leave the house for hours—sometimes all night—with the CD on repeat and the doors locked. Once, we saw Fuckface leave for school so we turned the music off. But then she came back inside to get her jacket and we turned it right back on. She screamed, “I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!” from the other side of the door, but we just turned up the volume and laughed. When she moved, she assured us she had her own reasons for leaving, and that they were totally unrelated to the nonstop Portishead mindfuck coming from downstairs. (We believe you, Fuckface!)
I only saw her once after that, at a New Year’s Eve party. I was living in New York by then, but had come home for the holidays. When I moved away, I gave a bunch of furniture to my friend, Chris—the same friend who was throwing the party. Fuckface was there, and we managed to avoid one another for a while, but then I saw her sitting on my old sofa. I immediately ran to Chris and explained the rules: Fuckface had been banned from my apartment, and the banishment applied to the furniture of the apartment, even after the furniture left the apartment.
“You want me to tell her she can’t sit on the couch?”
I wanted him to tell her a lot of things, beginning with “You can’t sit on the couch,” and ending with facepunch. But before I could answer him, Fuckface stood up and left the party.
The DJ had finally gotten to my request for “Sour Times”.
2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole
The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.
The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.
Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.
We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.
Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.
We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.
The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.
Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.
2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole
One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.
2/4 The Return Voyage
Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.
But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.
A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.
Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.
“Chris Turner,” Candace admitted. “He was the most popular dude in school. He was a jock. All the girls wanted him. So, one night I got drunk and let him have it.”
“Just because he was popular?” Jennifer asked.
“Yeah. Of course. Why not? I fucked guys with a lot less than popularity and looks!”
We went back to our food and our drinks. Images of Mandy’s naked body flashed before me.
“My first time was the worst,” Jennifer said, taking a sip of her martini. “All that romantic business went out the door as soon as it went in. God, I can still smell his cologne to this day. It was that peppery musky crap. How did we get on this topic anyhow?”
“The song,” I said. “The stroke me tune. I heard it on my way down here.”
The song I was referring to was Billy Squier’s “The Stroke”—a rocking tune that’s loaded with sexual imagery. It also served as the background music when I lost my virginity.
Stroke me, stroke me/Could be a winner boy you move quite well
Over the years I’ve found that stories of people losing their virginity came in two varieties. The difference usually depends on gender. For women it was usually a so-so encounter and for men—even if it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be (like in my case)—there was a sense of achievement. Or, at the very least, knowing that you finally did it.
“I crossed over,” a friend told me after he fell into bed with some stranger after a night full of wine coolers and cheap Mexican weed.
I’ve also heard stories of skies breaking, the sun shining sweet sex light on what was up until then an ugly dull life of household chores, high school, and sharing a bedroom with a sister that not only talked too much but farted like a man.
“I hated my life until I got laid,” one of my girlfriends told me. “I hated my parents and my sister. Especially, my sister. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. And that bitch had rot ass! And she was totally popular, too. The cheerleader. You know that bitch I’m talking about? That bitch. If only people knew how much of a stinky twat she was. I hated her. I still do. Then I got laid! All of a sudden they were of no concern to me. My folks were suddenly invisible. When Kim talked all I saw was her stupid mouth moving. I did my chores in a daze. School was a breeze. My grades even improved. On the weekends me and Danny would hop in his dad’s car and screw. It was cool. He’s dead now. Hunting accident.”
My first time was with a girl named Mandy.
We were in 7th grade.
I told Candace and Jennifer that it happened like a business transaction. It all happened after I accidentally bumped into Mandy at school. We looked at each other, liked what we saw, and made plans to meet at the park. At the time Dolphin shorts were popular. All the girls in the desert were squeezing their bodies into them. I remember looking at the way they hugged Mandy’s girl bits. Tight. Snug. A small mound slowly dipping down.
It was a wonderful sight.
I wanted her.
I wanted in.
But Mandy wasn’t a virgin. She lost her virginity two weeks before to some dude in high school. She was hooked and wanted some more. I was to provide her more. After a few sloppy kisses where she darted her komodo-dragon-like tongue into my mouth we decided to walk to her friend’s house for beer, pot, and a bed. I walked into a roomful of stoners. They were all high school kids wearing black rock band T-shirts. I took a couple of hits from a bong and cracked open a beer. Billy Squier was blasting through the speakers. The pot and beer hit me immediately. I was spinning like a top.
“Let’s go to the room, Reno,” she said.
I followed her down the hall, my stomach fluttering with the knowledge that I was going to get laid.
Put your left foot out, keep it all in place/Work your way right into my face/First you try to bed me you make my backbone slide
We made out some more and then Mandy pulled off her shorts revealing a full-grown pitch-black bush. This posed a small problem. See, by nature I’m not a hairy man. Just not in the follicle cards I guess. I can’t grow a full beard or a thick Pancho Villa moustache and have seen women that have hairier arms than me. So you could imagine how hairless I was in 7th grade. No need for man-scaping here. I don’t even understand that whole dude shaving shit and don’t care to.
So there’s Mandy with her giant muff and there I am with a dash of hair resembling some balding heads I’ve seen through the years. But I wanted to get laid so I mounted her and started moving my hips the way I figured it worked. The problem was that I didn’t know what it was to orgasm. It hadn’t happened by that time. No wet dreams yet. And I didn’t jack off like my friends did. Or like my cousin Johnnie who claimed to beat his dick on a daily basis.
“It’s great, Reno,” he told me once, his ugly scarred face smiling from ear to ear. “You need to try it.”
His face didn’t make it appetizing. Not at all. I don’t know why I didn’t jack off. I think it was because of Jesus. In those years I was still a Christian and was told that dude was always watching my every move and I didn’t want him to see me turning Japanese. I didn’t want to take the chance. It wouldn’t have looked good on my resume.
So I ended up banging poor Mandy for what seemed like three tragic hours. While I pumped away she provided me with a hickey the size of a Red Delicious apple. After we were done I went into the bathroom. That’s when I saw the hickey. My stomach dropped. It was sex-maroon and looked like someone slammed an end of a baseball bat in my neck. It was bad. I was fucked. Literally.
I walked home and went straight to the bathroom and covered the hickey with some of my little sister’s Flintstones Band-Aids. It was a bust. It was over. My mom called me into the kitchen.
“What’s on your neck? She asked, giving me the look that said: You pulled some shit and we’re going to get to the bottom of it now.
“Okay, well, you’re lying,” she said looking at the stain on my neck. “So we’ll make this easy. If you ever show up with that bullshit on your neck ever again you’re going to hate your life. I’ll make sure of that. You’re lucky your father is out of town. So go to your room and stay there. And whoever this dirty vampire is you tell her to suck on someone else’s damn neck. Understand? Do you? Good. Bye.”
“That story is hilarious,” Candace said laughing. “A giant 80’s muff! A Red Delicious apple!”
“When was the next time you got some?” Jennifer asked.
“Around two months later. My next door neighbor. Classic butterface. A face maybe a mother could love. Maybe. But her body was built for speed.”
“So you didn’t learn your lesson!”
“No, I did. I just told what’s-her-face no hickeys. I came that time. After that I had it bad.”
Don’t you take no chances, keep your eye on top/Do your fancy dances you can’t stop you just stroke me, stroke me
“I want to rule out cancer,” the hippie doctor with bad coffee breath tells me as I sit exposed on a cracked vinyl examining table in a run-down clinic downtown. My mind starts racing as my fingers probe the canyons in the vinyl, picking at the foam core.
Cancer. I’m so young.
“We’ll run some tests,” he quips as he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship. He snaps it shut, sets it down, far away from my eyes, as though my illness should be kept secret from me.
Feeling my neck with his fingers in little circular motions, he mumbles to himself, uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, another secret he keeps from me.
“Is it bad?” I stammer, trying not to cry in front of this man who looks like he lives in his car, the byproduct of me not having insurance, which is also racing through my mind. Health is a privilege in this country. You have no right to it, no entitlement, and I have learned not to expect it.
But I never expected cancer.
I eat right, organic for the most part, and I exercise every day. I quit smoking cigarettes years ago, and though I occasionally enjoy a joint now and then, I seldom drink, though I’m told a glass of wine now and then is good for you. I control my sugar intake, watch the red meat, skip anything with hydrogenated anything in it or bleached four or high fructose corn syrup, which is now being relabeled as just corn syrup because consumers have caught of to the food conspiracy.
How did this happen to me?
“I’ll know more when I get the results,” he says already on his way out.
“Ok,” I barely utter as the door closes.
And then I am left alone. Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.
I think about the first time I died, when my sister jumped on my head in Lisa Buell’s pool and knocked me out. Lisa’s dad had to give me mouth to mouth, and I remember the taste of cheap beer, probably Coors Light. Dying then had been peaceful, as I wasn’t conscious to struggle against the water that came crashing through my lungs. It was coming back to life that was violent, and I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake, if I wasn’t supposed to die there on the Spanish tile by the side of the pool.
I think about all the people I’ve wronged. Make a mental list of everyone who deserves an apology from me, including Debbie Gordon, the girl I beat up in eighth grade for spreading rumors about me. She might have deserved it, but violence never solves anything. I know this now. I’m sorry, Debbie.
I think of my Mom, of how her face will crack and spill onto the floor when I tell her I might have cancer. I watch her heart fall from her chest and crash onto the floor and shatter into a million jagged pieces.
I hear my sister cry in her bathroom, shut away from the ears of her six children, my beautiful nieces and nephews, who listen at the other side of the door unbeknown to her. I see their confused and conflicted faces as I wipe the tears away from my own eyes.
Then I see my brother cry, and that undoes me. The tears fall, and I don’t care if the homeless doctor sees them.
Forty five minutes and a box of Kleenex after I’ve been handed a bomb to hold, a nurse finally enters with a yellow tackle box of needles and vials. She rolls up my sleeves and taps at my veins. “Oh, you’ve got great veins,” she says, smiling. She’s too excited by them, and I wonder if she’s a junky. I try to examine her teeth, but she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.
“That’s all there is to it,” she says, snapping off her latex gloves and tossing them into the trashcan. “We’ll call to schedule the biopsy. You’ll need to pay at the desk on the right on your way out.” Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.
Death be not proud.
And neither should the dying.