“Neither Here Nor There” | Rebecca Marino

Inside a moving hotel elevator, I’m painting pink strokes on the wall. It feels like I’m painting glue on thick fabric. I’m in a hurry because the first floor is fast approaching. Right before the door slides open, I bring the thin paintbrush down to my right side, trying to hide it from whoever is waiting to step in. I can’t see the person, but I know it’s a man. We stand in silence until he leaves. The doors close again, and again I bring the brush to the wall, this time retracing the strokes, trying to fix it before someone else arrives. This repeats.

Please explain what just happened.

Erika Rae: Which one–the weeping or the laughing?

Carissa Carter: The weeping might be me. I over-indulged on this new craving for kale that just won’t go away.

 

What is your earliest memory?

ER: Spiderman was creeping around all open-armed on our brown, plaid living room couches in the dark. Next, I found myself inexplicably stuffed in the kitchen pantry eating dried brown rice from a white bucket. I think it may have been a dream, but I’m not sure.

CC: I was sitting on the floor of my room in our new house stroking a 4×6” swatch of shag carpet from our old house.

You have a lengthy background in the New York comedy scene. That must have made writing a humorous book easier.

Actually, I think it made it harder.

 

Why? That seems counterintuitive.

Well, having told so many of the stories [in A Bad Idea I’m About to Do] on stage made me know what the funny parts were, I’ll give you that. But when you’re on stage telling stories, you have charm working for you. You have the ability to control the timing of things. Most importantly, your audience can see that you’re alive and okay and a relatively happy, well adjusted person. So you can go dark and know that your presence and performance help blunt the grim side of your funny tales. On the page, you don’t have those luxuries. I had to do a lot of altering of things, a lot of expanding of certain areas, and a lot of soul searching to include some very personal stuff in the book that I wasn’t used to delving into as deeply on stage. My earliest drafts read like transcripts of a stage performance. That’s not good. The stuff that shows up in the book is a lot more fully fleshed out and brutally honest, which is saying a lot, because I think I was already pretty brutally honest about this stuff when I would talk about it on stage.

 

Are you referring to how a lot of the funny stuff came from you being in a rough spot emotionally? 

Yeah. I like to mention that stuff with a smile on my face when I tell these stories on stage, then move on. In the book, I had to own up to it, head on, and also dive into not just my, but my family’s history. It was pretty tough. That stuff is very real. It has had a very real impact on my life.

 

What did your family think of you talking about them so specifically?

They liked it. I talk about how my grandfather was genuinely nuts. I was scared they would be upset with me, but they liked it. I had a very touching talk with my dad before I turned the final draft of that one in, and was so impressed that he wanted me to just be honest about his dad. My father is a good dude.

 

Even though you wrote about him trying to kill teenagers?

Yeah.  I mean, he has his moments of complete rage-filled insanity, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good dude.

 

You sure?

Positive.

 

You’ve written books before, but nothing like this.

Yes. I worked at a magazine called Weird NJ, and that turned into a book series.  I co-wrote a number of books and authored Weird NY. We covered local legends, ghost stories, weird people – it is by far the best job I’ve ever had, or will ever have.

 

That must have helped you write this book as well.

Definitely, in the sense that I know how to sit in front of a computer and produce words. I can crank out words when it’s time to do it. But those books were specific projects with specific goals. They were humorous to a degree, but that was not the focus. Merging my writing life with my comedy life was a surprisingly strange and difficult process. Also this new book is so personal that I found it terrifying when it came close to the publication date.

 

Why terrifying?

I worked on it for close to six years, from proposal to publication. And that was mostly in a vacuum. The only people who read it for the majority of that time were myself, my agent, and my editor. I’ve read each of these stories over a hundred times. By reading number seven of each one, I had no idea if they were funny or not, I had no perspective on it by about a third of the way into the process. Then all of a sudden, we’re just gonna let anyone read it. That was scary. It’s so, so personal to me. I just hope people get laughs out of it. I hope if someone is having a bad day and they read my book, it makes them have a slightly better day.

 

Do you have confidence issues? 

I have a very unfortunate blend of unwarranted cockiness and crippling self-doubt.

 

Wait, those contradict each other.

Yeah, it’s confusing.

 

Does that mean you land in the middle as a completely normal human being?

Not at all. Not at all. Instead, I think I exhibit the worst aspects of both of those traits, somehow simultaneously.

 

You seem complicated.

I try not to be.

 

Wait, did we just quote the Wes Anderson movie Bottle Rocket?

Yeah. Good pickup.

 

If any young people are reading this and they identify with how you were feeling in the book, do you have any advice for them?

Be yourself. Don’t worry about if you’re normal or not. No one is. You’re good to go. Decide what you want to do and do that thing. Make it happen. You can. It just takes a lot of work. If you have a dream, live it. I promise you, you can do it. Know that quitting is an option, but it’s not necessarily a solution. Work as hard as you can. You might fail. That’s okay. It’s good to fail. People who work as hard as possible sometimes don’t wind up living the dream they set out to live, but more often than not they wind up where they’re supposed to be. I have seen that happen dozens of times. It’s happened to me thus far. I know this reads like sappy, inspirational dreck, but it’s so important to me that kids just go for it. Be punk rock. It works. Decide what your dream is, then give yourself no other options. Don’t spend as much time doubting yourself as I did.

 

Are the Knicks gonna get their shit together this year?

Probably not, man.

 

Why do you host a public access TV show? It seems like a “bad idea,” just like the stories in your book.

Because it’s fun.

 

But why don’t you have a show on a real TV network?

No one at a real TV network seems interested.

 

But you starred in a sitcom once.

Yeah, but I didn’t write it. I just acted in it. My show on public access TV can only be described as “bonkers” and sometimes “bananas.” It is truly crazy. It can only exist on public access. If it was on network TV, it would be by far the weirdest show on network TV.

 

Do you think anyone will take a chance on it?

Nope.

 

Does that bug you? 

Nah. I do the things I do for love, and then just pray I can pay my rent.

 

Can you?

Yeah, but I live with a roommate in Woodside, Queens.

 

How’s that?

It’s okay. It’s like the sixth coolest neighborhood in the fourth coolest borough of New York.

 

Sounds sorta shitty.

Nah, it’s fine.

 

Do you have any questions you want to ask me?

That’s a moot point. You are me. I have asked you all of these questions, just as you have asked them all of me. And you have answered them already, as you are me and I am you. The premise of this endeavor is a confusing and tricky one.

 

I had a dream last night. I was in St. Andrews but it wasn’t St. Andrews, and there were zombies hunting me. The whole world was overrun by zombies. I had a gun but when I fired it the bullets zipped off in odd directions like those balloon stalls at crooked amusement parks. All out at sea there were sharks and you could see the sharks from the shore – big beautiful silver shapes circling in clusters of three. I tried to climb out onto a boat via a heavy rope, and I almost got low enough to touch the sharks, but I couldn’t and didn’t, and when I got onto the boat there were more zombies.

Then I woke up.

I realised then that it was more or less the same dream I’ve had every night. Sharks. St. Andrews. Zombie-like bad guys. Guns that don’t fire.

I had this dream – no, come back, it was only a short dream, or maybe just a fragment – and I’m not going to yap on about the dream itself, just some of the things in it, which are interesting, perhaps.

The bank’s assistant manager approached me with a friendly smile and an immaculate suit. Charles looked his part—competent, precise, rational. He also looked younger than I am, much younger, but appearances are tricky. He asked why I’d come in. I explained I needed to shift some money around to keep it liquid. I was a writer who dipped into savings and was contemplating a move to another state.

Sometimes it’s in dreams and sometimes in the moments just before I sleep.

Maybe they are daydreams or wishes or premonitions or visions of an alternate universe.  Or memories of less interesting people into which you’ve been placed.

Patchouli Morning

The metaphysical impishness, erudition and breadth of vision in this sexually charged roman à clef is Smith at his most vulnerable. We recoil in horror as he recounts a series of heartbreaking trysts that recall — then exceed — Flaubert in both emotional power and literary merit. Curiously, the novel stagnates for the first twenty pages with inane references to pedestrian, adolescent love themes directed toward a sophomore called only “Emily,” but it then soars for the remaining 344 pages with a narrative and vision as taut and authentic as anything in the Western canon since forever. And while the inclusion of the lyrics to Metallica’s “Fade to Black” in the prologue offers little in the way of relevance, one is reminded that — like black holes — not everything should be easily understood.

Lachrymose in Transylvania

Intoxicating, tantalizing, always potentially violent, this captivating tome helps define not just the current state of Inuit America, but the world at large. It is a book so erudite and well wrought that its aura somehow illuminates the rest of Smith’s oeuvre, sustaining his post-apocalyptic vision. And although Smith asks a lot of his readers (would Dracula really show up for the soap-box derby, uninvited?), we are rewarded for our efforts later in this tour de force when it becomes clear everything has been a dream — but not in that hokey, St. Elsewhere way — in that way that only Smith, at the height of his creative powers, can manufacture so convincingly.

Da Nang Disco

Can anyone write about the horrors of the Vietnam War like Smith? Maybe Tim O’Brien, but does O’Brien dare to set his narrative against the backdrop of a colonial discotheque struggling to keep the party going during the Tet Offensive? No. Smith weaves his flawless prose seamlessly through the trenches and pop hits of 1968 Vietnam while exposing the artifice and shady underbelly that was the 2001 Little League World Series. The daring cadenza that begins the novel is, as often seems to be the case with Smith’s first chapters, categorically unreadable — but not in the sense that they are ill-conceived or poorly written — they are simply too much to bear, like much of Joyce. The Emily character makes a dramatic entrance, screams, then leaves the novel for good. Again. It’s so haunting! Maybe I should just come clean here and admit that I am not smart enough to comprehend what Smith is getting at, usually.

Toggle & Yaw

Just when you get the feeling that Smith may nave reached the limits of his vast fecundity, he treats us to a space novel like no other. To call Toggle & Yaw a “space novel,” though, is tantamount to calling The Bible a “sand novel.” The book begins quite predictably with a string of complaints (as is becoming Smith’s modus operandi) related to a character named “Emily,” who appears quite substantially in earlier chapters then disappears without a whimper. What are we to think of this “Emily?” Who really cares, when, later in the novel, Toggle (a Type A cosmonaut from the future) explains to Yaw (a robot/fire hydrant with a history of drug abuse), “Thy sample science programs, like deep surveys and slitless grism spectroscopy of exo-planet transit, will compromise ye olde mission’s capabilities in near-infrared, m’lady. Anon.” Can you think of another writer who can meld flawless Victorian patois with deep-space discourse like Smith? This reviewer cannot.

The Rending

If it can be said of any writer living today that he/she has fused lyric virtuosity with a kind childlike aplomb, that writer must be Mr. Smith. The Rending begins with the tale of a particularly devastating train accident, I think. Of course, Smith knows that, in fiction, it’s often what’s “not there” that lends to the visceral beauty inherent in certain exchanges and turns of phrase. Indeed, The Rending, Smith’s fifth and finest book thus far, is an artistic blitzkrieg on literary expectation and norms, as the novel, coming in at just under 600 pages, features not a single word. If Kafka, Proust, McCullers and Nabokov pooled their best work and created a kind of “Dream Team” book, one wonders whether the ensuing scribbles could even be put up for consideration next to Smith’s magnum opus. The culminate car-chase through the byzantine streets of Caligula’s Rome recalls I, Claudius, with lasers. Not-to-be-perused.

Emily

On first read, one wonders whether Mr. Smith actually typed the word “Emily” 2,011,740 times, or if he in fact used the “cut-and-paste” option on his PC. Either way, this paean to lost love compels the reader to ask: “Is this The Great American Novel?” or perhaps, “What’s your return policy?”

I have this re-occuring dream. I’m inside Christopher Nolan’s mind. Inside his brain while he sleeps. There are two labeled doors, one conscious. The other sub-conscious. Already, I’m bored, but I hear music through the cracks in the sub door, so I push it open. It’s a Japanese mansion with a smoky lounge with a room full of strange people all listening to Stevie Nicks. She’s onstage, says some rubbish about just having smoked weed. Cackles, showing lots of age lines. Leans into some familiar chords on a dulcimer.  A drum machine keeps the beat.

I had not been a good king. The people were gathering to throw me from the castle and perhaps kill me. I was doomed.

Fortunately for me, this was only a dream. Unfortunately, when I woke up from the dream, I didn’t really wake up all the way from the dream.

I had such an incredible fever that I didn’t know my dream from reality. This sort of thing is tough when you look out your window and hallucinate a massive mob of angry citizens marching through your backyard to get you. I took it upon myself to freak out.

I think it was Michiko Kakutani, though I can’t be sure.

Like the review itself, lost in the frustrating nebulousness of a dream, the name was nothing more than an ominous smudge. The critic a cipher, a shadow stubbornly lurking in the boiler room of my fears. I stared hard, brought the review of my book within inches of my face, tried to make sense of the barely but sufficiently out-of-focus print.Opening my eyes in the darkness, I rolled over with queasy certainty: I dreamt a review in the New York Times, and it wasn’t good.

Haunting Bombay is a…?

Literary ghost story.  It is also a mystery and a love story.  Some call it historical fiction.  It’s set in 1960s India.

Since I was a lad I’ve admired beat literature and its developers. My young mind was taken with the romantic image of Kerouac roaming the interior of the body politic, a mad sweating virus on the loose in the highway vein of Amerika, Ginsberg holy maniac,chanting, praying, exorcising a generation ruined by madness, Burroughs and Gysin, pushing the envelope, rubbing out the word, and di Prima, conjuring, straddling the magick/dream line, throwing us bits of tasty metamorsels and sumptuous subconscious feasts from the other side.

99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.

I live where toddlers cram spongy Cheerios into jellyfish mouths, trip and lurch like damp little drunks, and hone elimination skills on a squat plastic potty. I’m not actually present for any—my day-hour rituals are of a more droning and fluorescent nature—but some things are safely assumed.

Enter evening, when the babes retreat, the light dims, and the chorus lulls.

That’s the Monday through Friday breakdown. There are also weekends: two days per when the sauce in the sippy cup sparks spontaneous flits and twirls and lascivious text parades in lieu of wobbly grievances in the vein of “Milo drank my appul juuuice! Waaahhh!!”

It’s a whale of a deal, this only-in-New York living arrangement, with a couch-change price tag, eggshell walls you lose on the way up, appliances that glitter and clink expensive newness, and a porcelain bathtub with mineral curves so pure and sweet and sad that to bathe is to go back.

See also: a small unit set apart from the rest—a tidy afterthought with a big sure lock. But who’s fooled? My bedroom: porous like nobody’s business.

I.

It’s pleasing to three-year-old Me, the amount of light, real and artificial, filling the room right now, and as I look down, my legs floating off the edge of the soft sinking couch that feels against my bottom just like the one we have at home, I watch my feet, striped in purple and red because of the socks I picked out myself and put on earlier. These aren’t the only stripes. There are others, ones made by the sunlight coming in through the window that is not a regular window like the ones at home, but a window with something on it so that the light makes lines as it enters the room. These lines go in a different direction than the ones on my socks, which makes little boxes on the tops of my feet. I keep on looking at my feet, because I think the lines look neat all together as they are, and a little like the floor in the bathroom at home, where I remember standing and looking up up up at my dad brushing his teeth. I wonder when I will see my dad again. It probably won’t be very long from now, because I remember wondering the same thing many times before and always, every time, I have seen my dad again. Suddenly there is a picture in my head of some quiet water, and I think maybe it is the water from earlier.

II.

This arrangement is all wrong. It’s like my 31-year-old thighs, parallel to the floor and about three feet above it, are popping out of cartoon jail, wedged between three skinny pillars: pinched, chafed, wrong. My lower abdominal region is also constricted, made concave by a jutting, hard-plastic table-for-one. Suddenly I’m aware of airplane sounds, not from actual planes but from the mouths of women who hover above me, their lips moving in rapid succession. And suddenly—food! It hits me like a full-on air assault, rubber-tipped spoons loop-di-looping fast and furious toward my mouth, depositing quivering iridescent globs of creamed corn, mushy peas, mashed carrots and sweet potatoes and neon squash, next egg custard, berry medley, brown-ripe banana, pureed pears, applesauce, honeyed yogurt, more banana… I take it all in, too, determined not to make a mess. But I’m horrified, the whole thing is horrifying and I want it to stop. My stomach is really hurting and I’m so worked up I can’t even cry. Desperate for relief, I transform myself into an eel, sliding easily out from the chair and slithering to the center of the room, where the best toy is laid out: the giant road rug, complete with crosswalks and traffic islands and signs to the zoo. Coasting at leisure, I spy in the top right corner a small dark clump of trees, and, pausing for no more than a second, I disappear silently inside it.

 

On waking, wholeness. Precious.