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My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

1984

Do not let the wheat and umber curtains fool you. This picture was not taken in the 1970s. It was taken in 1984. I know this not because I can see the time stamp on the back of this Kodak moment – all I have is the .jpeg my cousin, the blond-haired baby on the left, now a grown man, just sent me – but because I have deduced its age by observation. My cousin looks barely one; my brother looks about four; my sister, about two. Any earlier, and I would’ve been wearing the eye patch I wore to correct my lazy eye all of 1983. Any later, and I would’ve had teeth missing. I’m the oldest. The four-eyed girl clutching Grover and a picture book at the center.  

We really were that happy.

supercool1

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

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

My mother says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. She says that beauty is only skin deep.

My mother says that I’m gorgeous. She says that I’m adorable. That I’m not fat, no, she swears, it’s the truth. My mother says I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.

Right, I say with a smirk. Through love cataracts.

My mother says there will be days like this. There’ll be days like this, my mother says.

* * *

We are one. An undulating mass of freshly shaven legs, glitter eyeshadow, cheap taffeta and hormones.

We are women. We are thirteen.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are playing. Or possibly Sugar Ray. “Bad Touch” or “Mambo No. 5.”

When a slow song comes on, people pair up. Pair off. Mary Nash with Roger, Anna with Alex. No one comes for me, though and “we” becomes “I.” Alone, I stand around for a minute, nervously picking at my dress. But I’m not stupid, not blind. I beat a hasty retreat.

I walk fast, with purpose, to the bathroom. In the mirror I can see that I am not what I thought I was. Under the fancy dress, I’m just me. Ugly.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and hang my head between my legs waiting for the moment to pass.

I am, in fact, intimate with ladies’ rooms. With powder rooms and lounges, the loo and the john. In fact, sometimes I feel as though my life has been nothing more than a long line of evenings spent hiding in bathroom stalls.

* * *

My face is the shtetl. I am Galicia. I am the Warsaw Ghetto. I am Zabar’s. The new Woody Allen film. I am some tertiary Philip Roth character.

Because my eyes are dark and brown and heavily-lidded, they are often described as soulful. Or mournful. Sorrowful. There’s something of Susan Sontag in them. And there’s a bit of Rosa Luxembourg in my long, hooked nose. Or maybe Emma Lazarus. In my smile, there are echoes of Anne Frank.

I invite comparisons- not to movie stars- but to Holocaust victims and Ellis Island rejects.

Even my body is foreign: fleshy and puckered. Tits and ass and hips. I have unruly brown pubic hair. One part ChiaPet, one part steel wool. I have a faint mustache that I bleach faithfully. My hair gets greasy and my skin is dotted with fading pimples. I am neither svelte nor toned. It’s telling: there’s no English word for zaftig.

I am much too much.

* * *

I am not a pretty girl. I know this, but, at the same time, I’m hoping someone will come along to contradict me.

I’m not a pretty girl and the most I can aspire to is “striking.”

Striking. Or “unusual.”

In college, a friend asked me to be in her student film. “You have such anunusual face,” she said.

But everyone knows, of course, that “unusual” is the polite word for ugly.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But the thing of it is, pretty does well.

Studies show that being attractive comes with plenty of benefits. Pretty people make more money, more friends. They get more sex and better jobs.

And while my mother would have me believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, science says otherwise. Beautiful people, they say, have symmetrical faces. Lithe bodies. Wide-set eyes and generous mouths.

Even babies know this.

In 1989, psychologist Judith Langlois found that infants have an innate sense of what is and is not attractive and act accordingly. The babies in her study stared significantly longer at attractive faces than at unattractive ones.

Which is to say that I am- and always have been- doomed.

* * *

Pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. But women have always known this to be a fallacy. We know that all we’ve got is the curve of our ass. That a pretty face is worth more than a Ph.D. We know that when our looks fade, we will be irrelevant, obsolete.

We know this and so we spend our lives, our money, trying to be beautiful. We tweeze and we pluck and we shave and we wax. We curl our eyelashes and we host Botox parties. We starve ourselves or we corrode the pipes with our vomit. We go under the knife again and again. We buy, buy, buy.

And we never give up the hope, propagated by Hollywood and children’s books, that we will wake up one day and be- quite suddenly- transformed. A swan.

* * *

For women, looks matter. Pretty is pretty damn important.

* * *

I always knew this. And when I was sixteen, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be beautiful, I’d better be thin. If I was thin enough, I reasoned, no one would notice that I was ugly. Models, after all, are allowed to be unusual. To have crooked noses that meander leftward and asymmetrical faces. So I’d be thin.Yes.

Yes.

And for a while, I was. I was very thin. I was 95 pounds and then, for a moment, 88 pounds.

But I was also starving. I was puking in the shower and cutting my stomach with razor blades. And I wasn’t any prettier.

* * *

My friend Lacey recently tagged this awful photo of me on facebook. I detagged it.  Because I’m vain and I’m insecure.

“I look hideous,” I wrote on her wall. “And fat.”

In the picture, I’m in the midst of a story. In full flow, prattling on about something or other. I’m clasping my tote bag. Emily Martin’s The Woman in the Body is poking out. Maybe I’m extolling its virtues.

My breasts look enormous and so does my nose. I look heavy and cow-like and the photographer has, unflatteringly, shot me from below. Also, it’s my bad side.

And so I detagged the picture. Of course I did.

But I’m giving the picture a second life here. Because, when it comes down to it, this is what I look like. Living and breathing and reading and yes, eating.This is what I look like. Caught up in the moment. This is what I look like.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.


 

It was early in the morning.  Lori answered the phone and handed it to me.  My father’s voice.

“Uche…there’s been a terrible…”

“Uche…you should know…”

A pause as gruesome guesswork played through my mind.  I wanted to hear rather than continue imagining, but did I really want to hear?  He drew a constricted breath, and it came in a wave before his voice broke.

“Uche, Chika died tonight.  Imose died tonight.  Little Anya is just barely hanging on…”

Died.  Died.  Barely hanging on.

My nieces.

There’s a special room in Hell reserved for movers. It’s right beside the room holding the cable guy who said he’d be at your house between 9 and 4 and two doors down from the mechanic who swore your car needed a new filibusterator. This room, which is called something fun like The Devil’s Armpit, is only 528 square feet and:

  1. mind-blowingly hot
  2. completely and totally empty.

The way I see it, The Devil’s Armpit will look exactly like the apartment my wife Juliana and I moved to in Philadelphia in 2005. See, Juliana got a job in Philly so we moved away from Atlanta, family, friends, and grocery stores that sell beer. To help with this adventure, we hired professional movers. By “professional,” I mean “three guys in matching jumpsuits who handled our possessions like a Star Wars collector handles a 1978 IG-88 12” Bounty Hunter Robot.”

“You can never be too careful!,” Bob, the head mover called out as he carried a box marked FRAGILE out to the truck. Meanwhile, another mover walked in front to clear Bob’s path of any dangerous pebbles.

We gladly paid these men the amounts outlined in our contract: $300 (insurance policy), $800 (deposit), another $800 (1/2 the cost of the move. A final $800 would be due at delivery). Bob took the money order, we shook hands, and he and his partners drove off. It would be the last time we ever saw them. It would also be the last time we ever saw our stuff. At least, in any recognizable condition.

Juliana and I arrived in Philly a few days later. It was Saturday and the middle of August. We made the trek upstairs (the elevator was broken) to the 12th floor—to the aforementioned 528 square foot sauna—and waited for the movers to arrive. A couple hours went by. We tried calling the movers a few times only to get an automated error message from AT&T. Finally, at 10 PM, the phone rang.

“YO!,” the thick Jersey accent shouted into the receiver while the sounds of live Jazz blared in the background. “WON’T BE THERE TONIGHT!”

“Where are you guys?!?”

“WE’LL BE THERE MONDAY OR TUESDAY!”

“I want to talk to Bob. He said–”

Click.

Monday or Tuesday came and went. The movers, on the other hand, did not. Calls to both the movers and the moving company led only to automated error messages. The one time we actually managed to reach a live person at the moving company, I was told they had no record of our move. Things were looking bleak. They were about to get even worse. We took a trip to the library and Googled “moving scams.” I’ll save you the time of sifting through the dozen pages of moving horror stories by offering you the following summary instead:

We. Were. Screwed.

Here’s the scam. A couple of crooks open a moving company. They’ve got a registration, license, even those dirty padded furniture mats that smell like broccoli farts. Everything checks out. The company is listed on reputable websites and you’ll read glowing testimonials about their service. You’ll sign a contract and the movers will show up and do a real bang-up job. Then they’ll drive off and your story will become a major motion picture summer blockbuster starring Ben Stiller or, if he’s available, Jack Black.

Around 45 minutes into the film—or roughly 312 Stiller pouty faces—your move will be taken over by an “independent third-party contractor,” which is code for “new crooks who are in cahoots with the original crooks.” One day, the new head crook will call and tell you that, due to a scheduling error, they won’t be able to deliver your stuff for about 30 days. They will, however, deliver it to a storage unit somewhere. For us, “somewhere” was Jacksonville, FL.

Three and a half weeks passed. One night, around 2 AM, I got a call from yet another crook. This time, it was a gruff-voiced cretin who sounded like he’d been gargling razor blades. Let’s call him “Sore Throat.” He wanted:

1. A signed waiver that released the movers (the original company we hired) of any liability.
2. $1000 (in addition to the already agreed-upon $800 payment).

If we failed to comply, “Sore Throat” warned, “you’ll never see your stuff again.”

I contacted lawyers, the Better Business Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Everyone said the same thing, namely “you’re screwed.” The Department of Transportation did elaborate slightly, saying that if the planets were to align in a Triple Lindy formation and pigs started to fly and Ryan Seacrest went down to holding only four jobs and—this is the big one—the DOT suddenly increased their staff by, say, 200%, then, maybe just maybe, they might be able to research our claim before the next Olympic games.

Back to the scam. The movers have all the power. Sure, you could sue them…and you’d win. But you’d never see a penny from the judgment. The crooks would simply declare bankruptcy and close up shop. Then, the very next day, they’d reopen with a new name and phone number. Cue Stiller pouty face.

OPERATION: UP A CREEK was well underway and we had no choice but to employ the age-old WHIPPED solution (see Jon vs. Kate). I called Sore Throat and agreed to his terms. The very next day, the moving truck pulled up in front of our building. A tall, lanky guy—another independent contractor—jumped out of the cab and, without talking, opened up the back of the truck.

Inside? Furniture that looked like it had been attacked by a chainsaw. Clothes, covered in mold from spending the past month in a wet storage unit, thrown around. And boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, in the shape of basketballs. Except the ones marked FRAGILE, interestingly enough. Those were shaped like footballs.

 

The first memory I have of my father is my earliest image of anything, a thunderous voice demanding I finish some long-forgotten meal. I was still in a high chair then, and the world was binary, black and white, yes or no. Mostly no. If you were uncertain about whether a particular action was permissible, you didn’t have to wait long to find out. The loud voice made the world exceedingly simple.

But while I often feared the consequences of my questionable behavior, I was never afraid of my father. To be honest I don’t know how he pulled that off. Maybe the secret is I’ve always known where I stood with him. I knew generally what was right and what was wrong, and I knew I would always be treated fairly. I also knew my father loved me.

Like if I was sick to my stomach at three in the morning, crouched over a toilet on the other side of the house, somehow he was there with a cool washcloth on my forehead. Or when I wrecked my bike and cut myself so badly I still have the scars, there he was washing my wounds, so proud of me for not crying. Or the way he constantly reminded me how he never earned the grades in school I brought home with ease. I wasn’t so sure about that, since I believed my father to be the smartest man in the world, but I appreciated him saying it anyway.

He was raised on the red, desolate plains of north Texas. In small towns like his, there was nothing to do and everything to do. He grew up hunting and fishing and working. He spent several summers on a harvest, twelve hours a day of backbreaking labor under a sweltering sun. After high school he made a stab at college but not a very serious one. He knew his own strengths and where he might find success, and it wasn’t between the covers of a textbook.

So he married my mother, took a job for a treating company, and began a nearly forty-year, zig-zag journey through the oilfields of the central United States. He drove a treating truck, sold oilfield chemicals, took jobs in places other sales reps wanted no part of. Together with my mother he saved our family from repeating the modest upbringing of their rural youth.

To my brother, sister, and me, the stories of my parents’ gritty childhoods were mythological, something you might read in a Larry McMurtry novel. In fact McMurtry himself grew up less than fifteen miles from my mother’s house…and yet I had no idea there was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist nearby until almost ten years after he won the award.

Why? Because though my father instilled core values that will always be part of me, and though he taught me many important things, he reads sparingly. If he read any novels at all during my nineteen years at home, I never saw them. I, on the other hand, was an insatiable reader. In my teens I burned through books like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451.

Considering the amount of hours my father put in at work, that his wife and three children were waiting to pounce when he walked through the front door every evening, he probably had little time to read. More importantly, literature has never been part of his world. He spent his youth outdoors, on his feet, and can barely sit still long enough to watch a film, let alone read a novel.

But even though literature wasn’t necessarily important to him, he never tried to separate me from it. I suppose he might have been frustrated to see me sprawled across my bed on sunny summer days, engrossed in a book when I could have been outdoors, but that didn’t stop him from purchasing me a typewriter for Christmas when I was 18. I think he first asked if I wanted a shotgun, and I would have been happy with one for sure, but he knew what I really wanted. And though he never asked what sort of projects I was working on, the Christmas gift was an unspoken message of support I’ve never forgotten.

In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. The course of her disease changed the course of my father’s life. He intentionally altered his upward-moving career path to make things easier on her. We lived closer to family, we moved to climates kinder to the disease. Eventually he arranged to work from home so he could he spend more time with her.

Retired now, my father is very nearly a scratch golfer, as well as an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but he’s never left my mother’s side. The two of them have changed their diets (based on a book, no less) as a possible way to slow the progression of her MS. And believe it when I say that watching my conservative, hard-nosed father wander through the aisles of a whole foods store looking for gluten-free products was one of the most surreal and impressive experiences of my life.

Though he never recommended a novel to me, or had any idea how to land a literary agent, my father was as instrumental as anyone in my quest to become a published novelist. Maybe he would have preferred for me to study petroleum engineering or even medicine, but the most important lesson the elder Richard Cox ever taught me is this: Don’t give up. As many times as I was rejected as a young novelist, as inept and uneducated as I felt trying to break into the world of publishing, I never once considered quitting. Fully aware of my modest storytelling and compositional skills, I worked hard to improve them, and though I’ve now published two novels, I still have a long way to go.

But I would never had made it this far without him.

So Dad, I thank you. And on behalf of my brother and sister, we thank you. For making sacrifices on our behalf, for standing beside our mother while she has fought a terrifying disease, for adapting your own strongly-held views to our divergent cultural and political beliefs, we all thank you. If I ever have a child, I will pass along your lessons to him or her with pride.

However…if my son requires assistance on how to knock down a mourning dove with his .410 shotgun, I might have to ask you to lend a hand. I’ve never been as good a shot as you.

But I could use another lesson.

-R

 

What photos have on words is speed.

Photos can be evocative, epiphanic and emblematic instantly, faster than the printed word.

They suck us in at the speed of sight. The speed of emotion.

Part of this is because we read slowly, averaging around 200 words per minute. The human brain can synthesize 4-6 times that fast, some experts estimate around 2,000 words per minute. So your mind actually has to slow down when you’re reading, which is why reading can make you tired. Schools should teach us to speed read.

Audio books are generally read at 160wpm.

Court reporters and other professional typists can do about 70 wpm.

Handwriting produces about 30 wpm.

On the back of this photo it says June, 1980 in an unfamiliar hand. Taken by Mr. Garber.

Difficult to recall Little Kippers, crooked pigtails, Mr. Garber or his sons who sandwich like white bread.

This photo captures a generically cute and utterly insignificant moment of my life. But it has the power to make me see beyond the present moment, the everydayness which blinds me to the possible. My mother sent it in a random care package with dish scrubbies, a handwritten note and some DrySol, and because its arrival coincided with my Generalized Life Dissatisfaction, I stuck it to the fridge as one would a postcard from some far away place.

I forget what I was like at that age. What I thought, how I acted. My mother remembers – loves to remember – but bias makes her an unreliable witness. Video cameras weren’t big back then. Toddlers didn’t have blogs. It was a less documented time. And so my childhood is an anthology of blurry memories like this one, moments that feel collective and half-real.

Photos are hair triggers for interior dialogue, catalysts for introspection, yardsticks of our evolution. Or, in some cases, stasis.

In the Power family albums, my radiant mother, impish father and sweet sister are apparent. But to me I seem a cipher.

I am you. You are not me yet.

By inevitable comparison, my once mutable identity has developed into something wooden. Like so many adults I’ve gone marking the limits of my intelligence and beauty and capability. The die’s been cast.

Over winter this photo adorned the fridge and later migrated to the bill holder, finally settling on a tower of Esquires which occupy the spare dining room chair. My shy smile, rosy cheeks, vacant eyes – attributes of toddlers everywhere – make me appear both adorable and impenetrable. Putty, possibility, enigma.

I examine myself at three, head like a clean attic and heart like a new car, and some interior fire alarm trips.

If I stepped into the frame and told the three year old me what she had to look forward to was working in an office and paying bills and getting drunk at happy hour and writing fuzz and many more hours holding hands with boys of equitable inconsequence, I am sure she would cry.

I think about how humiliating it would be to explain how I’ve ignored or dismissed most of her nascent dreams. She would ask why, as all children do, and then it would be my turn to cry.

“Too often for the sake of reason, people commit to the meaningless,” wrote Susan Sontag in her critical analysis On Photography.

Which is also a pithy summary of my personal situation for the past number of years.This is where I live. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is okay.

Photography invites us to dream.

Puts us in a meditative state.

Compels us to seek the truth.

In “The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography”, writer Patrick Maynard suggests that photography allows us “…to imagine seeing things…imagination trades in possibility, in questions about things or states of affairs that, while not currently realized, might prove realizable.”

Simulating the future and remembering share the same network of brain processes and regions, interestingly. Evidence suggests the brain sifts through fragments of memories, recombines them, then produces a picture of possible future events. In essence we clipart our possible selves from snippets of old mental photographs.

Which is why those with impaired memories, like amnesia patients, have difficulty speculating on their futures.

Some philosophers believe mental change is dependent on physical change. This theory is called supervenience.

So it would follow that the best way to reconfigure one’s interior is simply to pack up and move.

Maybe to a rocky island in the Atlantic where creative writing programs are easy to get into, somewhere quaint and historical, with good mass transportation.

Where a new self is entirely possible.

I used to work on an organic farm in California, living in a barn full of horses and riding tractors through fields under the warmth of a gentle fall sun. I was a Beatnik then more than now – among hippies and flower children, believing everything I was told and digging all the world in some glorious young innocence.

I was obsessed with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and with the notion of wilderness. I read too much for my own good; my head full of dreams and naïve thoughts. I’d read Into the Wild, a lot of London and some Thoreau. I was obsessed with Big Sur and becoming free of the constraints of humanity. I loved the idea of the writer disappearing into nature.

When I came upon a bicycle one day I realized that I had the chance to disappear for a while. I told my boss at the farm that I was going to wander into the wild and he laughed and said “ok” and gave me fifty bucks to prevent me from starving.

I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

Regard the image on the left.

 This is where my memory begins of the pageant. I sat in someone’s business office for-damn-near-ever at the Mall. Chairs lined every inch of the walls, and little girls filled every chair.  

Take a close look. Note the doily heart at my hip. That’s my pageant number. Cast your eyes upon the dress. My grandmother—a seamstress of great speed and talent—hand crafted the frock for my debut. It was February 1976, so we shouldn’t be surprised that I look like an extra from Little House on the Prairie. Dig the perfect part in my hair, held in place with festive barrettes. Now, behold my body language. We can all assume the outcome of the pageant from this one candid photo.

Seemingly hours later, we girls marched from our windowless, brown-paneled green room to a T-shaped stage in the middle of the Mall. At the top of the T was a row of adult-sized chairs for the contestants. The bottom of the T was the obligatory runway and, below, the audience. Not that one could see the people because of the lights, which created the effect of a near-death experience.

I suppressed my anxiety as each girl took her turn in front of the judges. It would have been normal to worry about my looks in comparison to theirs, but I was probably hoping I wouldn’t trip. Surely, I had to wonder what I was doing there at all.

What qualities gained my entry into the pageant? Congeniality? At that age, I was predictable and good at following directions. There was little chance that I’d burst into hysterical tears or wander off stage. Poise? I was well-coordinated and could walk in a straight line. That counts for something. Talent? I had good rhythm but couldn’t sing and didn’t dance. If we’d had a talent segment, I suppose I could have done a routine set to music with my Lemon Twist. Personality? I was quiet and shy yet highly verbal. That must have been charming.

My name was called. I shuffled my patent leather feet toward the runway. The host’s banter was something like: “Ronlyn Domingue is a second grade student at M___ P___ Elementary. She enjoys reading, watching Scooby Doo, and drawing. Her teacher says she is a smart little girl who does very well in her schoolwork. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. ____ Domingue. Let’s give a big hand to one of Lafayette’s Little Misses!” Through this, the lights blinded me. The audience looked ghoulish. At some point, I remembered someone had instructed me to smile, smile big. So I smiled and lingered for a spin at the end of the stage and resisted the urge to run back to my chair.

It was the lamest pageant ever. There was no dress change, no talent event, and no question and answer session. I didn’t have a chance in hell. My best attributes were below the skin.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has blocked out the judges’ announcement and the closing moments. I do, however, remember this. After the contestants returned to their families, my parents and I ended up next to the winner and her parents. My mom and dad did what civilized people do. They engaged in the niceties. My mother whispered to me, “Congratulate her.” I looked the little beauty in the face, her hair long and blond (maybe it wasn’t but that’s what I remember), her eyes bright, her teeth pearly. “Congratulations,” I muttered. To be honest, I hadn’t wanted to be there, but I was competitive and secretly hoped I’d place. One is allowed to be a sore loser when one is judged to be ordinary, possibly unattractive, at the age of seven.

Glance again at the photographs, now the image on the right.

That photo was taken a year later, my third grade class picture. My hair is short with cowlicked bangs. I sport a unisex red turtleneck and plaid pants. My footwear is designed for comfort and action. I wouldn’t grow my hair long again until I turned 19, and I wouldn’t wear a dress again without resentment until I was 23. I think the pageant traumatized me. I was gender bent, rendered androgynous. No more runways for me.

Third grade was better than second. My teacher realized I had a knack for stories. She’s the one who encouraged me to write. She’s the one who drove me to a local radio station so that I could read my prize-winning essay, the piece deemed best among 300 entries, a brief narrative on “Why I Like M___ P___ School.”

My fond memory of that experience: I stand in the kitchen with my mother, who turns up the transistor radio one morning to listen to my recorded eight-year-old voice. That’s when I stood in my own unique beauty, one meant to be felt and heard, not seen.

 

Vaselina operates five port-a-potties next to Kazanskaya Cathedral off Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. In Russian, she’s a Babushka, which means grandmother. Whether Vaselina really has grandchildren makes no difference. She’s one of an army of old post-Soviet women who pour down streets and sidewalks with pocketbooks clutched in one hand, plastic bags of raw meat in the other, linebackers who will, without question, run you the fuck down if you step in their path, especially if you’re inostranetz (foreigner).

 

This photograph was taken at two a.m., during the late June white nights. Operators of port-a-potties wear blue aprons. Vaselina charges ten roubles (32 cents) to use the port-a-potty and fifty roubles (the price of a cab ride) to use the VIP unit located on the far right, which is purported to feel less like slip n’sliding down Satan’s phlegmy asscrack than the port-a-potties to the left.

 

If you’re me, you’re ten shots and six beers into a bottle of Russian Standard Vodka and just tried to carry a very large and famous writer back to his hotel room, but since he’s one hammered ex-marine, and you’re a skinny Jewish boy, you left him on the Griphon bridge propped against the iron railing, legs over the side, facing the Griboedov Channel. If you’re me, your T-shirt is soaked with blood, Baltika 7, Vodka, sweat, and ripped down the middle from when said writer placed you on his shoulders, and dropped you into a mosh pit. You landed elbow-first into the forehead of a Russian Putin-youth who went to punch you, then hugged you, then bought two shots of Standard, then asked if you would like to elbow him in the forehead once again. If you’re me you’ve been looking for a bathroom since you left the bar because the line to use their bathroom extended out the door and into the local produkti (Russian 7-11). You only have a one-thousand-rouble bill, and know from experience that if you ask a Babushka for change, even if you are trying to buy port-a-potty admission, she will sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you one of the many Russian words for pedophile.

 

You could try an alley, or a bush, and before you wiggle it out, you’ll be surrounded by five Russian cops, smacked in the back of the head repeatedly, robbed, jacked, humiliated, and then have your passport held for ransom. They will tell you the penalty for being a drunk inostranetz trying to piss in their alley is a night in the drunk tank. They will tell you to use the port-a-potties like everyone else, that there are five of them located right next to the cathedral and that it only costs ten roubles.  They will tell you if you want your passport back, then come to the police station with one hundred US dollars, in twenties. Ask them what the thousand roubles bought you, they’ll tell you it was a bonus (gratuity).

 

Which puts you back in front of the five port-a-potties, penniless, bladder hot and pumping. You’re pacing. You’re ranting. You’re saying back home they’d never fuckin charge for this. You’ve used American port-a-potties and granted, several nose hairs were singed off at the root. You’re shouting where the fuck do you people get off.  You’re on about how Russian bathrooms ain’t right, how prior to tonight you found that every public Russian bathroom has been Jackson Pollocked by brown fart sprays from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Take a train from Moscow to The Ukraine and you’ll get a primer course in the fecally incorrect. Take the famed Siberian Railroad, and feel what it is to not shit for five days because you’ve already opened the bathroom door, a mistake for which you would rather be hospitalized than repeat. Ask a Russian how it’s possible for a nation to collectively decorate bathrooms so thoroughly and watch their faces contort into shrieks of wild joy and secrecy.

 

Do you ask Vaselina in broken Russian for a free pass? Say you’re desperate, drunk, tired, and will pay her triple later? That the police just strong-armed you for everything you had, stole your passport, your money, your dignity and your registration card? That you’re too wasted to remember where your hotel is situated and you won’t make it ten yards before you get a urinary tract infection? Do you say pretend I’m your very own grandchild, and look into your heart?

 

Not when Vaselina has been doing this for over forty years. Seven nights a week. Even if you spoke the language better, the chances of your breaking through that defensive line are rail-tie thin and less than shit. The pervading philosophy in this country is fuck you. Linecutting is as common as empty toilet paper rolls. You can’t walk ten feet without hearing battered women weeping behind windows. The cold, gloomy weather causes such depression and tense relations it has its own word (pasmorna). Even your Russian friends, fellows and acquaintances will steal from you and overcharge you and assume you understand this in no way affects the depth and sincerity of your relationship.

 

You watch a Russian man in a Puma running suit pay up and enter a unit. You hear the sounds of the steady stream flowing into a deep dark hole, and just like your own grandmother, who, if she could see you now, would sigh tragically, shake her head, and call you a plastered asshole, Vaselina asks Running Suit Man if he’s okay. Vaselina asks if he needs any help. Vaselina says boy, it must sure feel good to let it all go. And as she says this, she leers at you, and her lips peel back, and sun glint bounces off her gold teeth. That’s when you take out your camera, a camera so shitty the cops weren’t interested, and snap her photo for eternity as your dignity, your Vodka, and forty-five minutes of piss warm motherland bureaucracy runs down your leg.

 

It was after you slurred those filthy songs with a sweet voice, eyes rolling up to the colored gels covering the lights, thinking, “FUCK! They can make me beautiful,” that I decided I couldn’t look at you anymore,

The first time I met Tricky, she told me to pour her a double, baby, and so I did. On a good day she drank Stoli and soda, heavy on the Stoli, light on the soda, in a glass. On a not so good day she did away with the glass and drank straight out of the bottle. I had never seen thirst like hers.

She worked in the club’s office upstairs, answering phones all day in a voice clouded by cigarette smoke and dripping with honey, but she wished she could get her bartending gig back. There was a day last summer when I had to go to work, despite feeling like an emotional wreck. As I opened the door to the office and walked inside, Tricky took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I broke down in tears and words and expressed that I had just left my boyfriend. I typically detest showing any vulnerability, especially at work, but at this point in my life my closest friends were either living elsewhere or just not around that weekend. I have a lot of “friends,” but only a few people that I really confide in. “Oh, boo, it gets easier, but for some of us, the ache never goes away,” she said, tears in her eyes. Her boyfriend had left her several months before, and it sure didn’t seem like it was any easier for her. She hugged me. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months. It felt good.

a frail six-foot tall child who chooses to sleep on tattered, burnt velvet couches in the humid basement, not even caring that rats bite your ripped knees and floured skin falls from your tiny finch-like bones.

Tricky was larger than life, an exaggerated woman, a singer prone to maudlin expression and verse, a bombastic designer with decorations not for the faint of heart. She painted murals in the club with vague images of herself all gussied up like a Storyville whore. She told me that she was going to take her panache for flower arrangements and start her own business. She told me that she could get us front row tickets to Madonna. She told me that a world famous photographer was going to do a photo shoot of her at the club, which is why she showed up to work one day in perfect make up and hair like Veronica Lake. But the world famous photographer never showed.

Or you sit, a defeated ghost of your former self, haunting the corner of my bar.

And then she lost her job at the club. I had a regular who was the head chef and manager of a party boat in Manhattan. He sought my help in hiring suggestions. I recommended Tricky. Chef Ted called me after her interview and thanked me for sending her in and that she was hired. “I told him that he had to wear a shirt and tie, you know, be a boy if he wants to work on this boat, because customers aren’t going to appreciate his other look. I don’t mind of course. But he can’t scare people here.” He nervously laughed when I didn’t.

You make a brutal gesture to me, pour you another, your mother is dying, you miss your boyfriend, you lost your job, you make no money at your new job, you are being evicted, you are disappearing. I do pour you another, but at the same time, I think about how I want to rip your hair out, strand by strand, with my teeth.

I felt guilty for enabling her habit, but sometimes I felt like it would just go away on its own. I know that sounds insane. I didn’t want to face reality, either, I suppose. Whenever I saw her, she knew what to expect, an attentive bartender, a drinking buddy, a shoulder to cry on…how could I deny her that? I suck at tough love and never had to do an intervention either, despite having a fair number of addicts amongst my friends. Sometimes I feel guilty for being able to handle my alcohol, being able to know when I need to stop drinking. I am a heavy drinker, but I am undeniably a responsible one. I don’t drink on the job. I don’t ever drink and drive. I don’t drink during the day, save for the occasional bloody Mary at brunch. I love booze, but I also know there is a right time and place for it.

When you aren’t looking, I take the stolen bottles, greasy from your grab, out of that bag you told me to hold for you. I noticed the plastic seals now slack and ripped back from fat glass necks because you were like an eager child unwrapping presents on Christmas.

I adore this photo because it reminds me of Tricky at her finest. Despite the spur of the moment pose, despite the shitty camera phone and the not famous photographer, she treated it like it was crucial. I will always look at it and remember her with love. That night there was an upcoming big event at the club and she had been decorating the basement bar area to look like the secret cave of a teenaged princess. She had hung pink and red chandeliers, arranged giant bouquets of stargazer lilies in glass vases tinted fuschia, making the dank basement where she slept smell divine. She put glitter everywhere that could take it.

I want to spit on you. I want to hug you, your heart is as huge as a magnum. I pour you another. And this, I vow, this will be the last one, ever.

Home was Los Angeles. And my life there was one of aimless, tipsy grieving. My father had died six months before this story begins and ever since I’d been casting about listlessly. One of my best friends, Lucy, lived down the street and we spent many a day together, drinking cocktails before 5pm and pondering the meaning of our mid-twenties. One such afternoon we decided that the best possible solution to our problems would be to go into business together importing t-shirts from Thailand. This may have just been an excuse to conduct “business meetings” over Bloody Marys at a restaurant in Culver City called Dear John’s, but whatever the case, we forged ahead with the plan.

The previous year on a travel-writing trip to the Philippines I’d happened upon a series of T-shirts with nonsensical sayings emblazoned across the front. My favorite was a hot-pink tank top with rainbow stitching. The Doritos logo was planted in the center in heavy black letters and underneath it said “It won’t come back to the house early and it will get dark soon.” Another shirt I was particularly fond of simply said “Coccyx Bone” across its deep purple fabric. It appeared as though whoever made these tees had a simple goal of producing shirts with English sayings on them. As in anything in English.

On a subsequent trip to Thailand I happened upon a veritable goldmine of these shirts in large weekend market in Bangkok. Over a “business meeting” at Dear John’s Lucy and I quickly determined that these things would sell and sell fast in Los Angeles. The kicker was that the shirts were cheap. Really cheap. Like 35-cents-per-shirt cheap. We could just go over there and buy a bunch of them and bring ‘em back, we slurred at each other, stabbing at our drinks with half-eaten stalks of celery. Suddenly, a business plan was born. And we’ll have to go to Thailand all the time for business! I think Lucy may have spilled her Bloody Mary at this point, so enthusiastic was she about our plan.

One of these shirts simply read “Sexy Daddy Fat Why & Why,” and so we decided to name our little business Why & Why. Naturally we made business cards, in watermelon colors, hot pink and green. How else would it be official, right?

To get ready for our first trip we investigated the amount of goods we could declare returning from Thailand, made some arbitrary lists and planned for a beach vacation on the island of Koh Chang following our big buy at the weekend market in Bangkok. We also invited our friend Holly along, partly for fun and partly so that she could carry back two more suitcases of T-shirts for us.

Armed with a copy of Lonely Planet Thailand and a few extra duffel bags, the three of us set off.

Fully settled into the awesome, vintage Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok, we drank away our jet lag with copious amounts of Singha and finalized our plans to hit the 35-acre Chatuchak weekend market. Unlike anything I’d ever experienced, the market sold everything from live baby squirrels to nonsensical English-saying t-shirts, and it spanned blocks and blocks of densely-filled little tents. There were sections for plants and animals, textiles, furniture and food and we dove right into the clothing district, stumbling over ourselves in our excitement at finding stall after stall selling our shirts.

One stall in particular had an amazing selection and we quickly struck up a deal with the father-daughter pair behind the counter. We excitedly told them about our plan to import their wonderful T-shirts to America, all the while stacking pile upon pile of the shirts on the counter for purchase. The father-daughter team were thrilled.

“Do you have more of these?” we asked breathlessly and they began pulling out bags from the back. “Yes, we shouted! We’ll take them all!”

We shook hands with the shopkeepers enthusiastically and left them to fold the hundreds of shirts we had just agreed to buy while we set off to enact a new and brilliant third step to our plan: we would just mail them back! Hundreds of them! Off we skipped to FedEx.

At the FedEx shop we began making arrangements to have our bounty sent back to LA. How many boxes, how many pounds, blah, blah, blah. All sounds good. Lucy whipped out her credit card.

“And what is it you’re shipping?” the clerk asked.

“Oh, just some T-shirts we’re going to sell back home,” we replied.

“Do you have an import license?” he asked.

“Um, a what?” We quickly explained our business plan to him.

He was young, American, and clearly the manager of the store. “Um,” he said, “have you ever heard of APEC?”

I can still remember the sinking feeling that came over me. APEC, APEC…as I repeated this acronym in my head vague memories of my high school economics class flitted through my head. Words like tariff, trade restrictions, and import laws swam before my eyes.

APEC = Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

APEC = us breaking some major laws and trade agreements by bringing these T-shirts home to sell.

I suddenly flashed back to a drunken moment at Dear John’s. Just as a waiter had placed our third round of Bloodies on the table, I leaned back in my chair and exclaimed to Lucy, “Man, this whole thing is just so easy. I can’t believe someone else hasn’t done this yet!” My cheeks reddened with the memory as we made our way out of the FedEx shop in Bangkok. Back at the T-shirt stall the father-daughter team had just finished sorting and counting the last of the 500 or t-shirts we had agreed to purchase and were grinning at us wildly as we approached.

We hung our heads in shame and explained the folly of our once-great plan. Pressing several hundred dollars of guilt-money into their confused hands, we backed out of the store, our hearts heavy. Our plan had failed.

The next day, on a ferry on our way to the island of Koh Chang, the three of us quietly sipped at cans of Singha. We would have to figure out another way to survive our twenties. Perhaps something less crazy than illegally-imported Asian t-shirts and something a little more upstanding like a game that involves touching other people’s motorcycles.

1. There is this photograph of my maternal grandmother holding baby-me.  I’m maybe 8 or 9 months old, decked out in a pink jumper and a stunned expression, as someone off-camera were dangling a particularly baffling toy, or warning me about junior high.  I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she has one hand around my waist and the other delicately supporting my right hand.  We look poised for a dance.  Her eyes are closed, the look on her face one of pure, dreamy contentment.  Someone told me recently that there is no less-complicated love than that between a grandparent and grandchild.  My grandmother’s face certainly suggests this.  She looks like an angel.

2. When my brother and I were small, my grandmother would make us picture books.  She wrote the stories (I remember placing orders over the phone, Illinois to Texas – “The main character should be named Samantha, and I’d like it to involve an elephant” – and then the moment of unbearable excitement after it had arrived in the mail but before I’d read it), drew the illustrations, and stitched together the pages made from wallpaper samples.  I suspect this is what inspired me to want to write in the first place, what made me think of books as things that people I knew made, that anyone could make.

3. In the photograph, she wears on her left hand, which circles my fat baby waist, a green jade ring I always admired.  When she was dying they cut her rings off her swollen hands.  Her hands had always been so delicate.  My strongest sensory memory of her, next to her powdery scent of Chanel No. 5, is the feel of the silken skin on her soft hands, her tidy nails always filed into little tips.  After my grandmother died, my mother had the stone from the jade ring reset and gave it to me.  I’m wearing it now.

4. My grandmother always wanted to be a writer, or perhaps I should say was always a writer.  When she died, my uncle (a writer) sorted through her things and excavated some of her work – breezy gossip columns she wrote for a Kansas paper under the name Betty LaBette, a humorous radio play, a dramatic short story about young families living in New Deal housing in 1940s St Louis, type-written letters and journals.  She corresponded with the journalist (and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, who encouraged her to continue with her writing.  Her stuff is good, too – lucid, smart, funny in a self-deprecating, vaguely Erma Bombeckian way.  (From a letter: “I always feel the less you know about the man you marry, the more interesting it will be to get acquainted with him afterwards, which has amply proven so.” Ha!)

5. Shortly after my grandparents eloped in 1936, my grandfather (who had been a journalism student when they met) found God and decided to join the clergy.  His first gig was as rector at an Episcopal church in Alma, Michigan.  My grandmother, who had loved the bustle of St Louis, where she was involved in local politics and the Women League of Voters, was now, as my Uncle Jim writes, “sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling.  She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.”  He adds, “when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.”  I love this.

6. I think of the photograph when I see my mother hold my daughter, her first grandchild.  I am awash with nostalgia for something I didn’t quite experience, for a moment impossible to remember.  It’s part hormones, part exhaustion, part overwhelming, crushing love.  My grandmother has been gone for a while.  She never got to see me publish my first book, never got to meet this baby, who, I think, has her forehead and nose.

7.  I am writing this in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by other people tapping into their laptops, their faces moonily lit by half-written screenplays and novels.  I picture my grandmother riding her bike around some small town, books stuffed in the basket; toiling away at a story after the kids are in bed.  There are all these connections between us — the writing thing, but also weird things like proclivities towards reading in the bathtub, or swimming, or eating avocados plain.  I often think, If only she were alive today!  We have so much in common!  But do we, really?  I think she may have been braver, better at ignoring what people thought of her.  She was an eccentric in times and places where eccentricism was not nearly so accepted or expected as in current-day New York City, where I have landed.  She read a lot and wrote a lot for her own pleasure, just for the sheer joy of it, because she couldn’t not.  She raised four children and when she finally had a moment to breathe, instead of devoting herself to writing she took up teaching poor kids how to read. In the end, her greatest work was her family, her long love affair with my grandfather, her life. When the days with the baby seem long, or I am feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t had a moment to write, or haven’t achieved some level of success, or something, I think it serves me well to think of her – to look at this picture and try to access that contentment, that happy, dreamy moment of almost dancing.

I am about eight years old in this photo. The little boy I am towering over is about four. His name is Louis. The 1950’s love-bot next to poor, distraught, little Louis is, indeed, yours truly. For the record Louis did not want to be wearing that frilly dress and bonnet, but I can be very persuasive. Even as a child I had a thing for men in drag.

When I look at this picture I feel profound joy. I smile at those skinny legs, laugh at that proud expression, and am filled with a sense of pride and love for my silly little self. I want to hug me.

There was no adult help in the conception and preparation of this get-up. It was my own creation, my own vision, a vision of a sullen housewife, perhaps, or maybe a haughty hooker. I’m not sure. I have no idea what I was thinking, but I know I loved it. I loved that blond curly wig, those red prostitute heels, that green synthetic monstrosity, those strap-on, plastic, Dolly Parton tits with their enormous pronounced, engorged nipples. I remember the hilarity that ensued whenever I donned that outfit and slunk into a room of adults. I didn’t understand why it was funny, but I loved the reaction.


It sounds like an outrageous statement to make but I’m fairly sure that in the late 1970’s and early ’80’s I had the best dress-up collection of any child on planet Earth.

I was the only daughter of two creatives. A father who dressed like an urban cowboy in constant battle with his own inner Indian, and a mother who was a fashion designer, the founder of Brox Sox (the coolest hosiery company in New Zealand), and the proprietress of a vintage clothing store.

My dress up box was the envy of every girl who ever encountered it, the bane of many a small boy’s existence and the amusement of my mother’s friends. There was never any indication at her soirees that a 1920’s bride, or a clown, or a gorilla would suddenly waltz through the living room. Many a dinner party went happily awry at the unexpected arrival of a princess, bitch, tart, actress, or whatever other slinky little personality I decided to undertake.

The contents of my wardrobe included, but was not limited to:

-Multiple wigs

-Designer gowns dating from the twenties through to the seventies

-Scarves and beads and broaches and bangles

-A silk clown suit

-Many pairs of shoes

-Masks – both glamorous and terrifying

-A full body gorilla suit, including feet

-Hats, capes, cloaks

-Bridal dresses

-Furs and fur stoles, including one with the fox head still attached

-Veils, acres of lace and ribbons and silk

-Negligees, lingerie, slips and petticoats

-Hand-sewn beauties, everything from flowers to handkerchiefs

-A strap-on plastic bosom and matching dimpled ass.


I loved those tits and ass. I still do. I smile fondly as I remember the sense of excitement, daring and masquerade I felt as I tied on those gigantic breasts, donned that curly blond wig, and strapped on my four-inch red hooker-heels. I remember practicing my walk in those heels, a practice that came to serve me well several years later.

This picture is oddly prophetic.

I still love to dress up. I’ve even made a career out of it.

I still love bossing boys around.

I still adore men in drag.

I still love to wear hooker heels, wigs and naughty negligees whenever possible, even when vacuuming.

Not much has changed.

But the more I think about it the more I wonder if my love for dressing-up was somehow tied in to my desire to hasten the process of growing-up. I never liked being little. I never liked being kept in the dark or forbidden to do things because I was too young, too small, too… anything. Being young was prohibitive for me and being grown up seemed like such perfect freedom. Looking back, grown, I love the irony.

The child in this photo had more freedom than she knew.