February 01, 2015
I met Lori Horvitz several years ago at an artists’ residency, where she was writing this book, then tentatively called “Dating My Mother.” She read the title piece, about her recent break-up with a woman whose eccentric restaurant behavior rivaled that of Lori’s mother, who once responded to a bug in a bowl of soup by saying, “It’s pepper. Just eat it.” The piece was sad, not only because it was about a failed romantic relationship but because the mother in the title died young, when Lori was in her early twenties. I was moved by Lori’s struggle on the page to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional way of paying homage to her mother by unconsciously choosing to date women who resembled her.
In the hands of a skilled writer like Horvitz, such dark material has tremendous comic potential. At the artists’ residency reading, we fellows laughed so hard we were almost in tears. When I say Horvitz is funny, I don’t just mean she is witty or playful with words or cleverly amusing (though she is those things, too). I mean she is David Sedaris-level funny, especially when she writes about her early youth. I wanted to read the first five chapters of The Girls of Usually out loud to my whole family, including my eleven-year-old. (The later chapters, sprinkled with sex and death and a little bit of alcohol and drugs, are too dark for kids, but not for older teens.) And even though I had heard or read many of these stories before, the book seemed alive and new. The humor surprised and delighted me, even the second or third time, which is a testament to Horvitz’ fresh and quirky talent.
For instance, here’s her take on religion: “My only fond memory of Hebrew school was riding on the back of Mr. Wilkomersky’s motorcycle. He took each student on a ride, and when it was my turn I wrapped my arms around his waist and shut my eyes and felt the wind whip against my face and thought, Maybe this is what it means to be a Jew.”
This is family pets, Horvitz style: “One day my mother brought home three full-grown chickens, birds she had gotten from another teacher at the school where she taught kindergarten. My brother named the two larger chickens Mumpy and Measles. I named the smaller one Pox and claimed her for my own.” The visual of three large chickens in a house on Long Island and the grotesque yet deadpan names made me laugh.
As did the opening sentences of a chapter about Lori’s pen pal and unusual romantic interest: “Like me, Luke was eighteen. Like me, Luke played guitar. Like me, Luke wrote bad poetry. But unlike me, Luke was serving time in a correctional facility.” The parallel syntax and stacatto rhythms give the surprise at the end a stronger punch. Even the chapter titles are a bit comic, including Shiksa in My Living Room, Chickens of Suburbia, The Lost Language of Lox, Slim-Fast Vacation, and The Woman Who Owned a House in Flannery O’Connor’s Hometown.
The book is populated by a string of girls (and a few guys) who at first seem perfect but always become problematic. There’s the guy who praises her art then tells her Art is a bourgeois impediment to The People. The girl who opens doors and screams “You be fugly!” The German woman who says, “My grandfather tells me Hitler was a good man. He saved the economy. He built the Autobahn.” The British Hugh Grant-lookalike. The tour guide to the “dirt-cheap vacation” to Peking via Budapest and Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The devout Christian whose parents tell her she is “in the grips of Satan for loving another woman.” The lawyer who tells Lori she needs to join “a fictional support group called Party On—the antithesis to Alcoholics Anonymous.” The list goes on and on, one soulmale gone awry more colorful and strange than the next.
Even the pets can run amok. “When I got home,” Horvitz says, “I placed Small Pox on the washing machine and leaned my head down to kiss her. But before my lips could reach her feathered head, she poked me smack in the eye. Why would Small Pox do that? I asked, not sure how something I could have loved so much could hurt me.” And that (how the ones we love hurt us the most, and how we let them) is one of the major questions running through this book.
Horvitz is a creative writing professor (at the University of North Carolina, Asheville), so it’s not surprising that she knows her craft. A number of the chapters are adapted from essays previously published in magazines, but the book reads like an integrated whole, with thematic threads, images, and metaphors from one chapter continuing into the next. Most chapters are told in a straightforward way, but others tend toward the lyrical. (Horvitz is also a poet, who studied with Beatnik giant Allen Ginsberg, who makes irreverent and hilarious appearances in this memoir.) Though some chapters are in first person, others in second person, they all fit together seamlessly, which is no small feat.
The Girls of Usually, as a memoir in essays, reminds me of JoAnne Beards’ The Boys of My Youth or Chloe Caldwell’s Legs Get Led Astray. The title refers to a malapropism of Maria, a Frieda Kahlo-lookalike Mexican scientist who struggles with cocaine and monogamy. The phrase is supposed to mean the girls she usually hangs out with, her group of female friends. But Maria doesn’t quite understand this idea, just as she doesn’t quite have full command of the English language. Carla, one of “the girls of usually” is in love with Maria, though Maria claims she is in an exclusive relationship with Lori. The concept of this phrase, “the girls of usually,” is a bit skewed, just like the syntax. “Wouldn’t the situation be clearer,” Horvitz says, “if Carla were a guy? If I were a guy? If a guy bought presents and wined and dined my girlfriend, and didn’t want to acknowledge our relationship, wouldn’t that be a problem? Yet when women are the key players, a sense of lawlessness comes into play.”
Part of this book’s originality, what makes it essential reading for girls coming of age or women struggling with their identity, sexuality, or orientation at any age, is that women, indeed, are the key players. How many other memoirs are there about women traveling the world, trying to figure out if they like other women “that way”? I have read a lot of memoirs, and I teach memoir writing, but I haven’t read any like this one.
What does it mean to be a lesbian? That’s another question that drives the book. Lori’s sister calls her pocket poodle Sunshine, “The Lesbian Poodle.” Why? “Maybe because she scurried away from the neighbor’s male pocket poodle, Cricket, in favor of a cowboy boot. Whatever it was, the word ‘lesbian’ meant freak.”
Many of us, lesbian or not, identify with the label freak. I was a freak as a kid for reading books, for being quiet, for watching “Monty Python” when my peers preferred “The Love Boat.” I was called Carrot Top for my hair, The Nun for not taking drugs. Aren’t all of us freaks in some way?
Readers who’ve struggled to form identities apart from their parents will see themselves reflected here, too. Despite their differences, Horvitz portrays her parents affectionately, in the way that time and reflection and mature writerly insight make possible. Towards the end of the book, she asks her father to read aloud a poem she made of his quotes. It starts with statements such as “You need to watch television” and “Why don’t you join a synagogue?” and ends with “Send Grandma a recent photo of yourself./ She wants to set you up with a police sergeant./ He’s Jewish. Why don’t you find someone already?/ Get married and get it over with.” When he finishes reading, he says, “I can’t deny I have said similar things,” and they both burst out in laughter.
We can hear the nagging, the prodding, the implicit criticism in his voice. But we can also hear the affection between both father and daughter, despite their differences, the generosity and openness to all the characters, even the craziest ones, throughout this book.
How open is Horvitz? A fellow at an artists’ residency says, “70 percent.” He explains why there’s a ghost in her room: “You’re an easy target. You’re too open.” For a ghostbuster, her candor and vulnerability may be a liability. But for a writer, whether she’s implicating herself in the demise of her relationships, embracing the “freakishness” of being single, or chronicling the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York City, Horvitz’ brand of openness is 100 percent a gift.