I met Mia in high school. She was a cheerleader with the short black skirt and I was a jock. I liked her right away. She was intelligent and mature, had a regal feel about her. I was a wreck and a prankster. But we had a lot in common. We both liked books and music and would have these long conversations about bands like U2, and why they were heady, and why bands like Poison were shit. And how when we read Robinson Crusoe we were Robinson Crusoe. We were on that island. We liked art and football and thought breakdancing and baseball sucked. Our favorite color was green. We liked Hostess lemon pies.

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

Dear Bear

By Gary Socquet

Letters

So people call me Garebear (Bear for short) not because it rhymes (that would be lame, and my friends are not lame) but because I’m actually half bear, on my mother’s side. A few years back I started an advice column for the lovelorn: as it turns out, you learn a lot about making relationships work when one of your parents is a bear. And, well, I just like to feel useful. I think you’ll see what I mean. Let’s dig into the mailbag, shall we?

Dear Bear:
My boyfriend is my best friend, he’s smart and funny and sexy, but he’s not a giver: he never considers my feelings, never asks me how my day was, and in five years he’s never once told me I look pretty. What should I do, Bear?

–Unappreciated

 

Dear Unappreciated:

Are you pretty? Is it possible one of the qualities you left off the list of his many fine traits is “honest?” Have you ever considered the possibility that he’s just taking pity on you? I mean, you call him your best friend, but it doesn’t even sound as though he likes you all that much. You’re clearly very needy, you have limited self-esteem, and at this point the jury is still out on your looks – although, honestly, if he’s never once in five years said you look pretty, well, do the math. And count your blessings.

 

Dear Bear:

All my girlfriend ever wants to do is have sex: first thing when we wake up, in the evenings while I’m trying to watch Jim Lehrer, sometimes she even shows up at my office in the middle of the day and tries to get me to do it with her on my desk. What should I do?

–All-Whoopied-Out

 

Dear Whoopied:

Hmmm. This is a tough one. Well, let’s start with first thing in the morning: the alarm goes off, you open your eyes, rub the sleepies out, turn your head, and there she is, giving you the hungry look. Am I right? Okay, here’s what you do: roll over, and have sex with her. Got that? Okay, moving on: you’re watching Jim Lehrer, he’s talking about a squabble in Congress, or the situation in Afghanistan, and she climbs into your lap and starts rubbing herself all over you – sound about right? Here’s the plan: position her exactly in the line of sight between you and Jim Lehrer’s face . . . and have sex with her. Now to the nooners: she steps into your office, locks the door behind her, sidles around your desk, puts one high-heeled shoe up on your leg, lifts her skirt to show you she’s not wearing any panties – am I close? This one’s the toughest yet, but I think the answer is coming to me . . . yeah, here it is: give her my number. Loser.

 

Dear Bear:

I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost two years now, and I really love him, but lately he’s been working super long hours and I’ve been spending a lot of time with his best friend (we both miss having him around so much), and, well, I’ve started to develop feelings for the friend. I don’t know what I should do!! 😉

–Helen of Troy

 

Dear – wow, Helen of Troy? really?:

Well, let’s see. A couple things come right to mind: first, it’s natural for the bonds of a relationship to be strained when circumstances change, particularly when those changes lead to what seem like satisfying short-term distractions; also, try not to be such a giant whore. That almost always makes things better. (Did you really just emoticon wink at me?) Good luck, Helen!

 

Dear Bear:

I’ve been with the same woman for seven years, and I’ve always thought things were fine, you know? But lately she’s been dropping all these none too subtle hints about making it official, if you know what I mean. I just don’t know, you know? I mean, she’s great and all that, got a great body and a good job, but I don’t know if I want to put myself in that position, you know? Like, the only woman I ever get to sleep with, forever after? Help me out, buddy?

–Jets Fan

 

Dear “Buddy”:

Yeah, I get this question a lot. It’s a real pickle. “She’s great and all that, got a great body and a good job” – I hear ya. Who wants that? I suggest a two-pronged approach: first – and it’s absolutely essential that you take these steps in the proper order – first, get your fat, stupid, Jets-loving head out of your ass, and second, get your fat, stupid, Jets-loving ass out of her life. Seriously, if she doesn’t realize she could do better than you, at least be decent enough to give her a chance to find that out. It makes me sick to think you might be the last guy she ever gets to sleep with – there, I threw up in my mouth just thinking about it. Be a mensch for once in your life and get the fuck out. Buddy.

Ah, that was nice. It feels so good to help. Now for my favorite part – here’s a letter from someone who recently came to me for some advice. Let’s see how he’s doing.

 

Dear Bear:

I’m following up to let you know I took your advice and talked to that girl at work I like. You were right – it was so easy! Turns out she got a new pair of glasses and she was asking people in the break room what they thought, and I said, “They’re librarian hot.” (No pun intended.) What’s my next move, Love Doctor?
(name withheld for obvious reasons)

 

Dear Scott:

Guh. Please tell me you didn’t . . . Okay. Shit. Okay. Your next move . . . your next move. Okay, here’s the thing: “no pun intended” is not an idiom. It means exactly what it means. It is intended to follow an unintentional play on words, like when you’re in a meeting and somebody asks the fat guy to “weigh in” on the topic. So I’d say your next move should be to tell her in no uncertain terms how much you love her boobs, and then say, “No pun intended.” Get it, Scott?

(I’m not going to lie to you, people: sometimes I wish I were all bear.)

 

What would you most like to be asked?

That, to me, is the perfect opening question to any interview.  I wish more people would ask me about my writing process, rather than just about the content of my books.  I certainly don’t mind being an advocate for bipolar disorder, but I consider myself a writer first.

 

Okay, fine.  Where are you at this very moment, as you write this interview?

The same place I always write at — a little café in Beverly Hills called Le Pain Quotidien.  I find I write better out of the house, away from tempting distractions.  They let me sit here and scribble for hours, just me and a latte and a cup of gazpacho.  I’m so grateful to the café I mention it in the acknowledgements of my last book.  Come to think of it, I also referred to it in the epilogue of my first book.  I’m a café junkie, I guess.

 

It’s a pretty crowded place.  Isn’t it too noisy to write?

I wear earplugs, plus they always play classical music, which doesn’t bother me.  I have a certain rhythm in my head when I write, and classical doesn’t interfere with that.  Rock and jazz and more contemporary types of music, especially anything with lyrics, totally wreck my pacing.  Some people’s voices, if they’re too loud and nasal, also derail me.  Since when did it become okay to shout in public?  I think everybody should whisper — the world would be a much nicer place, full of secrets.

 

So the café gave birth to two books.  What are they about?

The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar is a childhood memoir about what it was like to grow up with a disease that at that time had no name.  I had no diagnosis, I just knew that there was something very, very wrong with me.  The book starts with a suicide attempt when I was seven years old, and continues with my increasing struggles with mood swings, alcohol, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.  It ends when I’m eighteen years old, on my way to college.  I had gained a certain amount of insight by then, and was sure I was leaving all my problems behind me — which of course, I didn’t.

Manic:  A Memoir covers my adult life with bipolar disorder.  I describe how I managed to be a successful entertainment attorney, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios, while secretly battling this devastating illness.  I also examine the impact of the illness — and my secrecy — on my relationships with various men.  I like to say that Manic was written from the inside out:  I tried to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s really like to be bipolar.

 

Are you manic right now?

Nobody ever asks me that, although I think they secretly want to.  I suspect they’re afraid of insulting me.  The answer is no, I’m not manic at this time.  You would know if I was:  I’d be writing so fast there’d be no time for punctuation or grammar.  When you’re manic, you have to get your thoughts out of your head THIS VERY MINUTE, or you feel like you’ll explode.  Although I get an awful lot down on the page when I’m manic, I later discover that most of it is gibberish.

 

Do you think there’s a reason that you’re bipolar?

You mean like a higher purpose, a destiny?  At the risk of sounding pretentious, absolutely.  I attempted suicide on a grand scale on a number of occasions.  I never should have survived, never in a million years.  I think there has to be a reason why I’m still alive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s to tell my story and allow others to learn from it, and to feel less alone.  It’s possible that I’m deluding myself, but I rather like this delusion, so I’m sticking with it.

 

 

I broke up with God. The breakup was devastating. It was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours. It was like waking up in an empty bed in an empty house. It was like someone I loved died. It was like when Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome arrive at Jesus’s tomb with spices to anoint his dead body, and they find the stone rolled back, and they look inside the cave, and he’s gone.

“God loves you,” church signs announce when I drive by. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, Jesus says when he’s asked which commandment is the greatest, and in the river, when he’s baptized, God claims Jesus as beloved. It’s the best love story ever told: God chooses you, sacrifices for you, kills for you, knows you, sees you, saves you. No wonder losing my religion felt like heartbreak.

Still, I hesitate to call what happened to my faith a breakup. I’m not completely comfortable portraying it as a love affair gone wrong. Figuring it as a romance seems simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Even worse, calling it a breakup means I have to come out: I have to admit to myself and to the rest of the world the kind of God I loved—namely, a man. I’m a feminist theologian. Saying out loud that I believed in a male God is like a yoga teacher smoking a pack of cigarettes every day between classes behind the studio. So let’s get that part out of the way: I believed in a male God. I loved him. I needed him. Sometimes he was gentle and kind. Sometimes he frightened me.

You could say God and I lived together, which made it hard for me to admit the relationship was over. Staying was easier than looking for a new place to live. God might have been invisible, but he took up a lot of space, and I had never been alone. Sure, the passion had gone out of our relationship, and he wasn’t who I thought he was anymore, but we were still comfortable together. Habits, routines, rituals. If you’d gone out to dinner with us, you wouldn’t have noticed that anything was wrong, but we definitely didn’t run home to tear each other’s clothes off. Sometimes we stay with what we know—even if it makes us miserable, even if it makes us feel small—because it’s familiar. It’s not that misery loves company, it’s that we’re willing to be miserable if it means we’ll have company. I was afraid of being by myself. A dead relationship seemed better than coming home to an empty house.

My relationship with God was never casual. When it began to unravel, I was going through the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest. I was the youth minister at a church in a suburb of Boston and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. You might say God and I were engaged and the wedding was planned—church reserved, menu chosen, flowers arranged. Calling it off would be awkward.

Breaking up with God meant letting go of someone I had believed in, loved, and built my life around, so I hung on for a long time because I was scared of what would happen if I let go. My relationship with God was connected to everything—my family, my friends, my sense of justice, my vocation, my way of being in the world. I lost more than belief. I couldn’t go to the places we used to go anymore. I couldn’t use our special language. I couldn’t celebrate the same holidays. I even had to trade red wine for beer. People say you can use a simple mathematical formula to figure out how long you will feel like shit after a breakup: one month of pain for every year you were together. God and I were together for my entire life. Thirty-four years. Which translates into thirty-four months of post-breakup misery.

Almost three years.

 

 

Excerpted from BREAKING UP WITH GOD by Sarah Sentilles. Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Sentilles.  Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

 

A long time ago, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Bitch—yes, the book she admitted to writing on coke—a and one part has stayed with me, which is her assertion that maybe female victims of domestic violence, rather than avoiding the beat-your-wife types if they came with dots on their foreheads, would head straight toward them. I haven’t kept this in mind because I think it’s some fantastic insight into domestic abuse, but because the idea that we, as humans, will always avoid difficult situations rather than seek them out has proven, at least in my case, false. I often go directly toward the choices that are most catastrophic for me.

Dear M—,

 

I’m writing to ask about your goldfish, Javaunte. Is the World’s Oldest Goldfish still alive?

*

I’m sorry for the names I called you a few years ago. I’m sorry I wished you were hit by a truck. I’m sorry for stealing your e-mail address and trying to log on to your Facebook account so I could pick through your private messages and the profiles of men I suspected you’d slept with. I didn’t know much about Facebook then, or my own desperation for answers. Though I wouldn’t admit it, not to you, I was embarrassed. It’s not like me to do something that brazen or unethical.

*

Well, sometimes it is.

*

When I found out I was sick and might not get better, I went through Jason’s things while he was at class. I went through his desk drawers, his closet, the boxes under his bed. I went through his file cabinet. That’s where I found a stash of notes from you, filed under “Misc.” One of them had crude pencil drawings on it–you, Jason, and a smiling goldfish. “Please feed Javaunte,” you’d written.

Like everything else I found that day–a birthday card that spoke of a “bittersweet summer,” an old driver’s license word-bubbled with “I need some crack!”, a few photographs–I shredded the note to pulp.

*

We were moving to Alabama after graduate school. That’s why I started stalking you. Facebook, MySpace, Google searches with twenty different keywords: your name, law school, University of Alabama. That’s where you had just earned your Juris Doctorate, and where I would be teaching English in the fall. That’s where I expected to see you in my new coffee shop, my new bookstore, except they wouldn’t be mine because they would already be yours, like Jason was. I needed to know what you looked like so I could recognize you. What you looked like now, I mean.

*

In the pictures on Jason’s wall–the collages of college friends and concert tickets and newspaper clippings with his byline–you sometimes had blond hair, sometimes brown. In black-and-white, your eyes looked blue, but when I wrote once that they were blue, Jason corrected me. “Brown,” he said. “One of the irises leaks a little, like a dog’s.” He said that to make me feel better–here, a flaw–but I thought it was cute. I love dogs. I love flaws. I love Jason’s crooked bicuspid, the one he threatens to straighten someday, the one that cuts my lip when he isn’t careful.

*

You, holding a glass of white wine, a lit Christmas tree behind you. You, camping. You, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl’s outfit on Halloween. You, standing on a bridge with sunglasses on. You, smoking a Camel Light. You, sitting on a dock, looking out at the water, Jason sneaking up behind you to get the shot.

*

You were right about one thing: I can’t prove it was you. I know only that you had the disease first, the year before I did, that you lied about it, that you gave Jason a cure that doesn’t exist. What were those pills?

I can’t prove it was you, but I had to believe it was you. How else would Jason not take your calls in the middle of the night, when his cell phone screen read, “Baby calling,” and not see you on trips home when I stayed behind, and not one day introduce us and make us play nice over drinks? How else would those pictures come down so new ones could go up? How else would he finally, once and for all, let you go?

*

It was probably you. We both know this.

*

I never saw you in Alabama to tell you how I was feeling. In your body, the disease turned dormant and went away. In my body, it evolved.

When my sense of humor is most intact, I imagine a scenario. I imagine we are girlfriends that talk about their trips to the gynecologist. I imagine that, in Tuscaloosa, we get together over beers at Egan’s and grimace over the wrinkled doctor who treats us both in that complex behind the university. I imagine you know all about the protesters in the parking lot, the ones who carry misspelled signs (“You’re fetis loves you”), who call and make fake appointments. I imagine you, too, have had to arrive two hours early for a check-up because those protesters think you’re coming for an abortion.

I imagine it starts to get dark outside, almost as dark as in Egan’s. I buy us another round and ask if I can tell you something personal, something bad. You say yes. You say of course.

I tell you that the nitrogen oxide made me feel like I was rolling off the metal examination table. That the nurse held me fast and said, “Hush, baby, it’s almost over,” and I told her “baby” was your name and “darlin'” was mine. That Jason didn’t go in with me because I told him not to. That I wanted him to come in anyway. That I left part of my cervix in that room, the part covered in dividing cells, the part it took two people to make.

Like other women who have left pieces of themselves in that building, I, too, could call that part “baby.”

*

Even though your profile is mostly private now, I remember your pictures on Facebook. I made fun of you for writing “luv” in reference to your dog. I called you a bottle blond.

Here are some things I wouldn’t have said then: I think you’re pretty. I think you love your sister. I think your best friend is more beautiful than either of you, but also crueler. I think she has a controlling way about her, and I think you have done things to impress her that aren’t really you. I think you take a lot of self-portraits, like me. I think we are both insecure. I think that’s why I once cheated on a boyfriend I still miss sometimes, and why you cheated on Jason.

*

Jason and I are married, eight months now. At first, I made the wedding pictures public. You weren’t the only reason. But I hoped you would see them. Please forgive me. I’ve made them private again.

*

My friend laughs every time I tell the Javaunte story.

Jason was recalling Alabama, something he does more often now that we live in upstate New York. He couldn’t remember the name of someone in his hometown, the name of a wino who nearly died in the alley beside the Marion jail. “Oh, we’ll just call him Javaunte,” he said.

Immediately, I saw the bowl sitting on a coffee table covered with ashes and band stickers. Plastic grass waving in water that needed to be changed. A funny caption. “Javaunte: World’s Oldest Goldfish.”

I smacked Jason on the arm. “You pulled that out of M—‘s fishtank!” I said. He looked stunned for a moment, and then he remembered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I completely forgot about that.”

I stood up to get another beer from the fridge. “I know everything,” I called, sing-song, from the kitchen. “You have no idea what I know.”

*

You know what’s weird? I had a really old goldfish, too.

I got Norman when I was eight. My mother took me to the Tioga County fair and let me go off with some friends to the rides and games. I had only one rule. I was not to play the goldfish game. No more goldfish, she said.

I didn’t think I would win. I had no aim, wasn’t the least bit athletic. It was just luck that damn ping-pong ball landed in Norman’s slot. The game attendant put him in a sandwich bag filled with water and tied it off. My mother was livid, but she mumbled something about fair goldfish always dying the next day anyway.

It started to rain on our way to the car, and my clumsiness caught up with me. As I slid into the backseat of our Chevette, the sandwich bag slipped from my hand. The knot came undone, and all the water spilled out, on the floor, in my lap. It had a fishy smell. Norman lay flipping around on the fabric seat.

I screamed, horrified. My mother didn’t want a fish, but she didn’t want one to die either, so we got out of the car and began scraping rainwater off the other vehicles, refilling the sandwich bag with about an inch–all we could get from the hot July shower.

We put Norman back in the bag and drove home. He looked lifeless, barely fluttering at the bottom. My mother told me to expect the worst.

But Norman made it home, and through the next day, and the next. He lived until I was twenty-two.

*

Besides fortified goldfish, I wonder what else we have in common, M—. I’m sure you’ve wondered this, too. I’m sure you’ve thought there’s got be something we share besides cells and boyfriends, something fundamental, something a man like Jason would love in both of us.

Maybe enough time has passed for me to send you a friend request. Maybe we should move our stalking out in the open. Look at the pictures, scrutinize the hair, the eyes, the easy or uneasy smiles at the camera Jason is or isn’t holding. Maybe, if we look long enough–if we watch one another change jobs, cities, friends, body weights and hair colors and outfits–we’ll find the familiarity we were once sure didn’t exist in the other.

Even if it’s just goldfish we’re determined to keep alive. That’s something. I hope Javaunte is doing well.

 

Best,

Amy

 

 

I’ve started dating again, after a full year of being as far removed from the scene as I could be without being on a different planet. Two dates in and a third around the corner and do you know what I’ve come to realize?

I hate dating.

In the past several weeks I’ve given a lot of thought to reinvention. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that I’m trying to completely reinvent myself as a woman, friend, potential lover, and as a participator on this weird, spinning ball.

I used to write. I used to write a lot. I wrote about everything that happened to me, the daily minutiae, the ups and downs and highs and lows. Hundreds of people tuned in when I posted online to hear about my sex life, my love life, my boozy escapades and narrow escapes, my darkness and light. And then one day I stopped. I got happy and distracted. I became enmeshed in a loving relationship and kept my stories safe and secret. I got caught up in caring for someone and making a home. I put writing aside. I stopped sharing the ups and downs. I held my cards close to my chest and even, over time, grew to distaste the idea of writing about my life. I became grossed out at all the TMI-ness of it all. The very thought of writing something personal provoked a Pavlovian gagging in my throat.

On a daily basis, about fifty questions speed through my brain so quickly I barely have time to recognize I’m even mentally asking them.

I think about these things almost always. My subconscious has become so clogged with questions that it’s started solving the puzzles and riddles while I’m asleep. My dreams have recently featured math quizzes from junior high, where I had a minute to solve as many multiplication problems as I could before my teacher would come by and snatch the paper off my desk.

To my darling Cecilia,

I’ve spent much of the day – such a harsh and lonely day! – reclining in my recliner and daydreaming of the house we once shared, of the days that once were, and are no more. I ate the remaining crabcakes – such last and homely crabcakes! – and washed them down with recollections of the home we made together, where we, or at least I, had so many good times. In the afternoon I bought some shirts.

And I was nearly overcome by the brutal and unforgiving strength of my fond memories. Nostalgia gripped me like a headlock from Jean-Claude Van-Damme, except around the face, and every time I tried desperately to break the hold of the past and steal a gasp of the present, all I could taste was another muscly mouthful of sweating Belgian.

Metaphorically.

I laughed as I remembered lying on my hammock in our shade-dappled orchard backyard, sipping on a glass of iced tea (as cold and refreshing as if it had been squeezed straight from Martin Sheen’s heart), the sun on my face, watching you gingerly reshingle the roof. I chortled heartily as I remembered you, shaky-voiced and trembling, confessing you had a mortal terror of heights. I guffawed until I couldn’t breathe and I started to faintly taste vomit as I recalled the terrified shrieks of anguish you made, falling three storeys up, only to hook your ankle on the giant breasts of one of the gargoyles that I had selected, and you had paid for and installed, some months previous.

Ah.

Those were the days, all right.

How I wish we still lived together now, Cecilia, because then my heart would once more be overflowing with love. And also, because I wouldn’t have to leave the house, or even the couch, really, to get laid.

But mainly, it would be about my love.

My love for my swimming pool, which cherished and understood me better than you ever could. Diving into its cool, forgiving waters was like hearing a choir of archangels sing Handel’s Messiah. Closing my eyes and drifting through its peaceful shallows was like listening to Mariah Carey’s sensual audiobook interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita. Swimming into the embrace of its darkened depths was like watching Joe Pesci get pulled apart by rabid timber wolves. It was my solace, and my bliss, and my respite from your well-meaning but misplaced and wearyingly continual attempts to engage me in conversation.

Just as there is no longer a you with which to spend my life, so too is there no longer a swimming pool in which to avoid you in.

And it’s breaking my heart, Cecilia.

I spend my nights alone now – alone and shirtless, gently rocking back and forth in this rocking chair that we bought together with your money for your mother, feeling the cool night breeze slink in through the open bay windows and caress my naked torso with gentle fingers. Sometimes I eat a sandwich and play Mortal Kombat to take my mind off my troubles, it’s true, but that’s not very often. Sometimes I wonder if Lord Byron would have been so moody if he’d had the chance to assume the role of Raiden, God of Thunder, and teleport from one side of a room to another, shooting bolts of lightning as he did so.

But Mortal Kombat is no you, Cecilia! Just as you are no swimming pool! I’ve been forced to make do with sneaking into my neighbour’s hot tub at nights, although, I have to say, the most entertaining part of these little endeavours lies in selecting which of the secret passages I have devised into his back yard to use – an idea that I lifted in its entirety from an Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Three Investigators novel:  The Mystery of the Falsified Paternity Test.

Do you remember our secret tunnels, Cecilia? I’m sure you don’t, because I never once shared the location of them with you, as it would most likely have raised questions about how I never had to buy gas, and your car kept getting siphoned clean, even when you parked at your sister’s house seven blocks over. Let me just say this – that with a shovel and determination, a packed meal and an up-to-date map of the municipal sewer system, a man can get his hands on a surprisingly large amount of his de facto wife’s car’s gasoline. If you catch my drift.

If I must spell it out for you, what I mean to imply is that I spent a lot of time watching your sister undress.

There.

I’ve said it.

The moon is full and the Glenlivet is good and the night is hot, Cecilia. Hot like the sex you had with Steve Buscemi on the Oriental rug that I brought back from the Orient, along with a scale model of the Orient Express. Although there were no Gypsy thieves making gas attacks on that particular miniature.

How happy I was when I walked in the door with that rug, proclaiming ‘Fuckin’ awesome! Check out this badass rug! I already totally love it way more than I’ll ever love you! I sure do hope I never catch you having a sex with a male celebrity or overweight female celebrity on this!’

Yeah.

I asked for one thing.

I turn for you, tragically,

Simon

This is the second item in a sometimes chronological series called “Lovebirds.”  Each is intended to stand alone, but if you want to read the first part, go here:  “Lovebirds:  Hepatitis Hotel”



Shakubuku.  A Buddhist term meaning, literally, break-subdue.  Its idiomatic meaning is slightly different.

It can be found in Grosse Pointe Blank, in which Minnie Driver’s character describes it as “a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever.”

For my purposes, either of these definitions work.  In either case, Shakubuku indicates a fundamental, sudden shift in habit and consciousness.  A violent change in awareness.

I don’t know what prompted me to leave Florida.

I know what I pretended prompted me to leave Florida.

Kerry read my journal while I was at work.  I came home to find him flushed, angry, and interrogative.  He confronted me about what I’d written as if I’d done something wrong.

It was established that my writing was my business, that I needed private head space.  He consented that if he ever wanted to know what was in that book, he would ask.

I don’t remember exactly what was in it.  At least not all of what was in it.  The entry in question had to do with my anxiety about leaving for Florida and the remorse I’d been feeling since I’d gotten there.  He was waving the book around, shaking it at me like someone was dead and he’d uncovered the murder weapon.

In my defense, I can only offer that Florida has no seasons.  There, I worked at at Gap Outlet and went to nickle beer night every week at a place with black-lighting and bartenders in day-glo bikinis.  Virtually everyone was a tourist or otherwise a part-timer, and I couldn’t stop feeling like one.  My presence there, according to the journal, was an “all expenses-paid lifetime vacation.”

“Is this what I am to you?!?!?!?!  A vacation????”

I don’t know if it was the artless attempt at a guilt trip, or really, genuinely, the act of betrayal itself.  Had it been one or the other, I probably would have kept my cool, but together, they were too much, and I went the other way completely.  My chest burned. I started shaking.

“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU FUCKING FOUND! YOU DID IT TO YOURSELF!  FUCK YOU!!!!”

I was maybe crying, definitely screaming.  It went on for a while.  I was screaming so hard I made myself cough, then gag.  In snooping–in his attempt to understand why I was standing with one foot out the door–Kerry gave me the opportunity to step out completely. I told him to keep the journal.  Shove the journal up his ass.  I was leaving.


I tried like crazy to be happy there.  To be thrilled about a situation that was–or would be for anyone sane or even remotely practical–more or less idyllic.

I certainly had no reason to be exceptionally UNhappy.  My fiancee was good-looking and probably on his way to affluence.  He was considerate and funny and willing to do anything in the world to make me happy.  I was 21 and had my own house.  Or townhouse.  Or Kerry’s townhouse, but we were engaged, so it was as good as mine.

I lived three blocks from the ocean, and by dumb luck, a girl from my hometown, Nora, worked at a hotel down the road where I spent happy-hours with her on the beachfront bar patio, looking out at the gulf of Mexico.  Dolphin spotting was such a regular occurrence that it eventually ceased to be interesting, even to two girls from Minnesota.  We’d pack up roadies in front of her bartender boyfriend and sip our drinks as we drove down the Emerald Coast Highway and the 30A, flanked by white sand dunes, to Sunnyside, where we’d marvel at the rich people’s houses, many of which were painted in Caribbean pastels and stood up on stilts because they were just that close to the ocean.

Kerry and I even had a pet.  A charismatic lovebird named Paco.  Just the one.  “Aren’t you supposed to have two?” I’d asked him.

“Not necessarily.  If there’s only one, they’ll just fall in love with whatever they see.”



It’s worth explaining, probably, how I got to Florida.

Kerry and I had dated for about a year and a half beginning shortly before I graduated from high school.

Eventually things fell apart, and Kerry moved to Chicago.  I can’t remember why.  We remained friends, and every now and again, I’d drive down to visit him.  I did it for an excuse to go on a road trip, to see a friend, to do something exciting.  It was always strictly platonic.

Then he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and I went to visit him there.  Then Destin.

I was thinking about going back to school, about getting out of Minnesota.  I never had the itching need to escape or to get away permanently. I just wanted to do something else for a while.

There was a community college not far from Destin.  Faced with the choice of staying where I was and going to community college or or moving to Destin, being Kerry’s roommate, and going to community college, I chose the latter.

Kerry was in Minnesota for the turn of the millennium.  A large group of us went up to a friend’s parents’ cabin in northern Minnesota.  If the world was going to end, that was where we wanted to be.  Drunk and together, blowing noise makers across a frozen lake as close to the arctic circle as we could muster.

It made sense at the time.

Shortly after midnight (or maybe shortly before), Kerry brought me into the walk-out basement of the cabin, sat me down, and got down on one knee.

I had no idea it was coming.  None. We were not dating and had not been dating–not dating, not sleeping together, not even kissing, not so much as holding hands–for almost 3 years.  I was sitting there in snow pants, sniffing, my thawing snot trying to run out over my frozen lips.  I was not prepared.  In any sense of the word.

I remember being intensely confused and flattered.  And drunk.  I remember my brain saying “No!” immediately but my mouth saying something more tactful.  Like, “I need to think about this.”

In my memory, the remainder of the trip was an uncomfortable blur of trying-to-be-normal interactions with Kerry.  He’d told everyone there what he was going to do, so to their head-tipped, pursed-lipped, nodding sympathy faces, I had to relate the story of my answer and my rationale for not accepting that instant.

These explanations to the same people who had kept their foreknowledge of this violent turn of events from me, at least one of whom, I was fully aware, knew the full gravity of the situation and how poorly I was likely to react.  I was unprotected and set adrift by friends in the interest of a relative stranger and a “surprise” that was a surprise like a mail bomb is a surprise.  This was reality of adulthood, though.  I certainly couldn’t get mad at them.  Could I?  Surely not.  “Just be graceful.  Be a grown-up.  Stiffen your lip,” I told myself.  There would be no hiding behind John or Jake.  Their girlfriends were there.  Girlfriends frown upon boyfriends propping up other girls.

John and I ended up alone in the kitchen at some point.  “Big day!” he said, knowing full well what it meant and per his habit, refusing to speak it out loud.

“Did you know about this?”  I pointed in a general way towards the backyard, where everyone was still stumbling around the fire pit and hooting across the lake.  Where Kerry was, somewhere.

He nodded silently, pursing his lips, again pressing back words.  He extended the bottle of champagne he held in his hand and raised his eyebrows in a gesture that was equal parts defiance and resignation.

“Cheers.”

The next day, Kerry and I made the 4-hour drive home.

When we pulled into my hometown, we went directly to a bar to meet our respective best friends, who just happened to be married.  They, too, knew he was going to do this.  My indecision was exhausting us both.  Kerry moped.  I felt guilty.  I couldn’t bear to tell the story to any more sympathy faces.

Something came over me.  A panic, maybe, that this might be my ticket to adventure.  I’d never dated anyone as ambitious as Kerry.  Or (I thought) as normal.  Maybe I was doing a remarkably stupid thing by not saying yes.  Maybe no one told me because they thought it was a good idea.  Our best friends were inside.  We could be four married best friends.  How bad could it be to be married to a smart, good-looking, ambitious guy who lived three blocks from the ocean?  We got along well, apparently he adored me…not accepting his proposal was surely self-sabotage.  What or who was I waiting around for, anyway?

It was a thought progression that was familiar to me, but there in the car, outside the bar, was the first time I was ever consciously aware of it.

The crippling terror of limitless possibility lies in time’s march straight through, disregardful.  No rewind. While numerous potentialities can exist comfortably and simultaneously in one’s head, in reality, you’ve got to choose.

Do this or do that; you will regret both

So just before we went inside, I accepted.

And I moved to Florida.

And I was miserable.

In Destin, a week or so prior to the journal incident, I awoke to the ceiling fan buzzing and watched it.  It cast a pulse against the venetian blind shadows on the wall.  Shadows upon shadows.  Beating like a drum or a heart or whatever you prefer.  Kerry lay, snoring lightly, to my right.  It had been months and I still hadn’t totally unpacked.  There were boxes everywhere.  The house was a mess and I didn’t care.  Out on the patio, there was a decrepit lawn chair, some trash, a small family of geckos, and lots of weeds.  All had come with the house.

It was March, maybe 7 AM, and I could already smell the oppressive, sucking, steaming gulf air outside.  At that moment, something changed, and my mind was made up.  I slipped into the spare bedroom that would have been my bedroom had things gone according to the original plan. I slept there for the rest of my nights in Destin.

Nora was moving to Louisville in two weeks, and I was right behind her.  To Kentucky, to Derby week, to a place that had seasons–to a place that had another guy named Kerry.


To the Water

By Justin Daugherty

Essay

1.

The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.

Hello. My name is Darci, and this is my first TNB post! It’s nice to meet you.

I know a little about you. I asked around some, and I’ve seen you hanging out here, writing and commenting on stuff. You’re charming–all of you. You’re funny and smart and I can tell there’s a lot going on upstairs.

So far, so good, is what I’m saying.

But I should probably tell you a little bit about me. Not because I’m particularly special or fascinating (I am, but that’s neither here nor there), but because it directly affects you, and I feel like a little fair warning is the least I can do.

I used to think my judgment was impaired when it came to beginning new relationships, romantic or otherwise. I generally give people I like the benefit of the doubt and hope they turn out to be as charismatic and smart and in possession of the basic skills one needs for human survival that I believe them to be.

But that has rarely been the case.

Okay, at first, maybe I was to blame. I was young. I did stupid things and I let stupid things do me. I mean, if one dates a 25-year-old Philosophy major who lives with his parents, hits on high school girls (in front of you! and her parents!) and keeps a bottle of Drakkar Noir in his Camaro’s glove compartment for the days when he forgets to shower, then one kind of deserves the disappointment and disillusionment one inevitably suffers. All bets are off, basically.

But then I started making better choices and the outcome never changed. I learned! I grew! I progressed in my partner selection, from bass players to drummers to guys who weren’t even in bands at all!

Still, things kept ending the same way. Often (more often than seems fair–or even logical) I ended up orchestrating and facilitating my partner’s hospitalization, rehabilitation or adoption of a 12-step program (sometimes all three!).

What I’m saying is: I keep choosing different people. They keep going to rehab.

He’s been clean for years.
Rehab.

Not at all the ‘tortured artist’ type.
Rehab.

Total square.
Psych ward.

Already in therapy. Practically straight-edge!
Rehab. Jail. Rehab.

“Shut up and explain what this has to do with me!” is something you have every right to be saying now.

Frankly, it means you’re going to rehab. Let’s face it, I think you’re really good looking. And you seem smart, and functional and a lot of fun. I think this could really work out between us. I mean, no pressure. I’m not saying we should move in together or anything. But there’s a chemistry here. I think we could start at third base and see what happens.

And if history has proven that it isn’t my choosing that’s to blame, we must agree that rehab is simply a foregone conclusion. You’re going, and I’m going to help you get there. It’s pretty much a done deal.

No, no. Not now. Not right away. You’ve got, like 18 months or so, probably. But it is going to happen.

So let’s turn our collective frown upside down. Let’s accept it and climb on board! Let’s look for the silver lining! I mean, there are clear benefits to early detection.

1. You’ve got a chemical dependency problem to look forward to, which usually starts out really fun.

2. We know what’s coming, so we can plan around it–work it into our schedules. It’s on our radar, so it doesn’t have to be such a fucking surprise this time.

3. You’ve got someone to help you through this. And I’ve done it before. A lot. I’m good, and I’m not going anywhere. So you can relax and start enjoying all the spiraling out of control!

Like I said before, it’s very nice to meet you, TNB. I have a feeling we are going to be very good friends.

Now let’s kick this shit one day at a time.