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What motivated you to write this book?

Same thing that motivated me to learn karate—having the last name “Faries,” and I can show you how good I am, just like I showed Donnie Manfredi in 1981 when I did a round-house kick over a five-foot fence and knocked Donnie into the dirt. He didn’t take the bus for two weeks after that.

 

Tell me about music and its place in the book.

The book is music. If you put it to your ear I am sure you can hear a guitar solo. I’m just not sure if it is acoustic or electric. When the first box of review copies arrived in Thunderbolt, GA, the UPS driver strutted to my door snapping his fingers and swaggering through the humidity. He put the box on the porch, did an about-face, and abruptly dropped his head and shuffled back to the truck.

Each chapter is framed in a particular song that helps contextualize the emotion of place. In the 70s, rock and roll was still defining itself and it seemed to change monthly. It was moving, just like Mother and me. In trying to find itself, it was screaming, “Hey, where am I? What am I supposed to be doing? This feels good! How about this? Oh, you don’t like that sound? Well fuck you…. How about this? Can you feel that grinding? Can you feel my chest expanding and my britches getting bigger?” I am chopping down mountains with the edge of my hand. I am chopping down palm trees and they are landing on your back.

 

When writing a memoir, is there such a thing as objectivity?

No. Objectivity in writing is a myth because the very act of selecting content is by nature subjective. Now, in my book I was incredibly objective. For example, when Mother was making love to John P. on the mattress above the Jack-o-Lantern Bar I objectively described the situation: I was happily bouncing up and down because there was only one mattress. It was as if we were all playing together. There were strippers from out of town blowing men in the parking lot while we hid from Mother’s boyfriend , Junior, in this wonderful little upstairs apartment. That scene was just described objectively (sic).

 

Tell us a little about your concept of truth in memoir, or at least truth in this memoir.

Well, my narrator will likely be accused of making certain things up. But if you ask a first grader—raised by parents who were always tripping on psychedelics—why the family had 18 dogs, he would likely recount this mystical experience where he saw them all emerge from a vaginal opening in a barn door. And that is exactly what happened. If you are going to be a little magical, just remind your reader that you are a magician and not the messiah. They will watch your magic show and even accept some of your failures, like when you pull a monkey out of a hat when everyone was expecting the same old rabbit.

 

What’s the story behind your trailer?

The story is that two wonderfully fascinating mothers trusted me with their boys for a day. I transformed them both into Chadillacs (that’s been my nickname since birth) with Big Wheels, Barbies, classic cars, motorcycles, and music. It was the closest I ever came to being a parent. And Ashley Newsome, who plays my mother in the trailer, I spotted her at a coffeehouse where we were both watching the band Shovels and Rope perform, the song “Boxcar.” It had the same emotion as the book, and I looked over and saw Ashley in bell-bottom corduroys with a beer in her hand and knew she had to play my mother. We shot various scenes from the book. took a bunch of stills, and recreated the 70s. The most disturbing element was playing Mother’s boyfriend.

 

After what is now over 40 houses in 40 years, have you managed to stay put, or are you still rambling?

I’ve got rambling on my mind. I say I’ve got rambling, rambling on my mind. But I’ve now lived in the same house for four years. That is the longest I have ever lived in a single space, though I transform that space constantly. I am a carpenter, and I have created fantastic nooks and tree houses on my property so I can ramble from space to space. But I am not very successful at that either. I run away to ape sanctuaries and mountains on my motorcycle at least once a month. Rambling does have some costs I suppose. I really only have two childhood friends. And my friends from high school always treated me as a second-class citizen. Yeah, you know who you are and you are going to be in trouble. I know karate.

 

You are at your grandmother’s deathbed right now, on the release date of your memoir. I know it might be difficult, but can you contextualize the scene for us?

I am in Iron River, Michigan in the Northstar Hospital on the shore of Ice Lake. There is a window and I can see the water. I pissed in that water, cut my foot open in that water, had sex in that water. And I think Gramma did all of those things in that same water. And aunt Molly too. She is on the other side of the bed. Grandma calls us “the smart ones” sarcastically. That is one of the last full sentences she got out. The sun hasn’t shone in three days. Gramma has that death rattle people describe. It sounds like a car crash played in slow motion., complete with people screaming. But occasionally she will cough out a feverish laugh. Sometimes she sighs and lifts her eyebrows. When I touch her hand she breaths heavily and squeezes. “Grandma, I made the cover of the paper today” I tell her. I play the music from my trailer for her, “Boxcar.” Ain’t it just like you and me to go down like that? The dust jacket on the hardcover has an excerpt that reads “We talked fast because we thought we had a lot to live. And we did. Still do. We are all still alive, even with the years of damaging relationships and drug treatment behind us—years of cheap Wonder bread full of mold, and sour milk. No one has died, at least none of the women. They have centuries left I am sure.” Well, surely not. I am a damn stinking liar. I am telling you this now so you know there are no surprises.

 

Is there something you want to say to your grandmother?

There is a difference between scratching your ass and tearing a hole in it. Step up to the magic and disappear.

We moved to Shanghai on a wintry day in March, my husband and I and our two dogs. We arrived for a job, sight unseen, and bedded down in a swank hotel on the company’s dime while the dogs were quarantined and we went apartment hunting. The company had provided us a relocation specialist, whose job it was to pick us up at our hotel thirty minutes before scheduled and midway through our buffet breakfast, then hurry us into a waiting car where we would drive back and forth through the grey, freezing sleet answering questions like, “Do you think it is necessary that you have both dogs?”

We spent several days searching through a variety of spiritless and expensive flats, whose grandiosity came in two flavors: Opulent Court of the Sun King or Decadent Sultan of the Orient. Did we see ourselves as more marble-cupids-and-crystal-swans-type people? Or more carved-wooded-dragons-and-enamel-phoenixes? Either way, the agent was at our disposal. She did have some suggestions, though.

What all the apartment buildings had in common was that they were new. Stunningly new. Glossy and gleaming and in some cases, still wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding. When I mentioned that I might like to have a second look at one place, with carved wooden moldings and a cozy window seat, the agent spat, “But it’s five years old!” in much the tone you might use to say, “But it’s full of centipedes!”

I was thoroughly charmed by a small, modern nook furnished from floor to ceiling with IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom. Even the posters on the wall were mounted in their original shrink-wrap, their non-committal BILD label obscuring the last few watercolor daffodils in the lower-right-hand corner.

In the end, we decided on an apartment on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis building, a compound as endearing for its ample green spaces and generous views as its comic book name. The Chinese name of our building, optimistically, is “the Oriental Manhattan.” Our building is one of dozens in our compound, each housing thousands of residents in a ring of 30-story towers covered in bathroom tile under the easily-disproven assumption that tiles are “self-cleaning.”

The apartment came decorated in a style I like to think of as “Apathetic Modern.” It appeared as is someone got tired of carrying furniture down the hall about halfway through and thought, “Minimalism.” We had a glass dining room table, a quirkily asymmetrical end table, and the ugliest sofa you have ever seen. It may not have been lovely, but everything was gleaming new and clean. Not a spot anywhere. Everything worked, every time, no fuss, no bugs, nothing. New might not be much to look at, but it’s easy to live with.

Of course, there was some trouble. We would often come down to find a posted notice in the lobby that began, in English, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE! MUST READ!” and then followed with the body of the warning written exclusively in Chinese. The few signs we could decipher made casual mention of the risk of fireworks setting our balcony clotheslines on fire, of plummeting satellite dishes from the upper floors, and of the terrible poisons regularly sprayed throughout the building’s charming green spaces. Still, we had one easy year. Then everything, quite literally, came crashing down.

We had chosen a place in Xujiahui, a riotous commercial neighborhood southwest of the graceful old French concession and an ever-growing collection of shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and real estate offices. One street a few blocks from our apartment now runs real estate office-massage parlor-real estate office-massage parlor, right on down the avenue until it’s capped at last by a bank on the corner, a handy encapsulation of new Shanghai. We picked Xujiahui because of its proximity to the subway and more importantly, to the company shuttle stop that finds my husband every morning at seven sharp ready to be carried forty-five minutes southwest into the digital suburbs, to great swathes of land where Dell, Microsoft, and Intel are colonizing former rice paddies and steel mills. We came to know and love our neighborhood, from the combination barbecued duck and pirate DVD store across the street to the Abusive Flower Vendor who would hurl invective every evening at us, his best customers.

You can find our apartment compound just a tad west of the Xujiahui intersection, a collection of colossal steel towers and LEDS blinking out “Welcome to the Terrifying World of Tomorrow” in colored lights. You can have coffee at the Starbucks perched beside a giant glass sphere ringed in orange rope lights and look down on the manic Sunday shopping crowds who cover every inch of sidewalk, undeterred by snow, wind, or rain, to watch noisy demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products. There is a constantly changing parade of live demos, video billboards, product pavilions, costumed mascots, and picketers. The first time I saw a line of shouting students marching through the crowds with picket signs hoisted over their shoulders, I thought I was witnessing a rare example of overt Chinese political protest. Turns out, the signs were advertising a sale on Hewlett Packard printers.

Almost all the buildings in Xujiahui are new or at least tricked out to pass as new. The pace of construction in Shanghai has already provoked a lot of breathless commentary in America and abroad but it’s still something you have to see to believe it. There are cranes and work crews everywhere, and the nights are lit up with the welding arcs that glimmer beneath my living room window at night. Everything is very thrown together, impromptu and impermanent. Contractors, developers, and speculators here know that whatever goes up today will come down tomorrow. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques may have less than a month between the opening party and the wrecking ball, so there’s not much point in squaring every nail. The expatriates here, too, their lives and commitments are rushed and temporary. For me, living in a furnished apartment had a temporary feeling. Why should I bother to clean the awful sofa when next month I might be gone, and the sofa, and maybe the whole tower, gone too? No, none of these things were exactly built for the ages, but after living in a lot of ragged places in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was getting used to sleek efficiency.

And then, like Cinderella after the ball, at the stroke of one year, everything fell apart. It was another March night, a year since we’d moved to Shanghai. I turned down my street, past the Abusive Flower Vendor’s cart. Tonight his daughter was manning the cart. She is sullen, but not abusive. I passed four or five security guards helping to wave a Lexus into a narrow parking space. I got to the door at the same time as a group of three maintenance workers in matching blue coveralls. They asked to be let in, but with my limited Chinese I couldn’t figure out why. Once inside they rushed to the bathroom and began busying themselves with my toilet.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and couldn’t understand the reply. “The toilet is not broken.”

I called my building manager and put him on the phone to translate.

“They’ve come,” he said, “to take your toilet.”

“To take my toilet?”

“Yes. They will try to bring it back in four hours. Maybe tomorrow.”

That was only the beginning of the problem. The weather turned warm, then hot. The air conditioner poured buckets of filthy water onto our ugly sofa.

I came home soon after to find the apartment dark and sweltering. The dogs were lying on the badly soiled sofa in pools of drool, the windows were covered over with mist, the flowers on the table wilting from their vase. The air conditioner wasn’t on. I was so upset to find my cool, orderly apartment turned suddenly steaming and primeval that I didn’t notice at first that nothing else was on either. No power. I called the building manager.

Meiyou dian!” I exclaimed. “No electricity!”

An electrician came to the apartment, unlocked our wiring closet, and uncovered a jumble of dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution which he himself deemed “very dangerous!” and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one. We never saw him again.

The electricity would be a perennial problem, but not the only one. When the electricity worked, the water didn’t. For four days we were without hot water, and had to trek across the town to shower at the newer home of a gracious friend. The drains didn’t drain. The water cooler developed a steady, pooling leak. A friend put one too many coats on our coat rack at a house party and the whole tower came tumbling down, scattering splinters of wood into every corner. The kitchen door wouldn’t open; the closet door wouldn’t close. One early morning we awoke to a crash as the dining room light fixture exploded in heat and came shattering down onto the glass table below. The clothesline fell. My built-in desk began a process of slow collapse, punctuated by the occasional outburst. When I pulled open a drawer to get a pen, the bottom of the drawer fell out. The bathroom was overrun with mildew. Mosquitoes bred in the shower drains and circled the house while we slept. The bank of elevators that served our tower began to rear, plummet, and stall. We kept track of which elevators that week were safe and which iffy, but we used the iffy ones, too, just the same. Then it was winter again and the heater didn’t work. We wore knit hats to bed. Now I understood what the agent meant: everything was old. Maybe it would be better to just tear it down and start again?

At least Cinderella was recycling. When midnight had come and gone, she lost her coach but at least she gained back a pumpkin. After two and a half years in China we moved away: where did all my shattered light fixtures and soiled sofa cushions end up? Is my compound still there? There are still plenty of investors in Shanghai, developers, speculators, and residents who haven’t had their midnight moment yet. Not everyone has noticed the expiration date stamped on the city, on its exuberance, on the wild life there. Be warned, new renters, and maybe invest in a space heater now.

Dear Montana,

It’s been one year.

One year that I’ve lived in your valley along the Clark Fork river, one year that I’ve lived in the West, one year that I’ve hiked up my skirt for your hillsides.

That’s a long courtship by my standards. Usually the caveats, bad habits and dirty laundry cut into the open by now.

Instead, you continue to woo me.

You arch your back of rock, pull me into your canyon veins, and peel me naked.

“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.

“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.

Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.

I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.

I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.

“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”

We really don’t know, I don’t say.

We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.

When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.

“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.

In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!

We will not be Homeless. No way.

We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.

We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.


Uninvited

By Slade Ham

Humor

Twenty. That’s at least how many families have been paraded through my bedroom over the weekend. I’ve lived in this house for a year and a half; my roommate has been here much longer than that. The landlord has just filed bankruptcy, however, which puts my living situation in jeopardy. A trustee takes over the property and hires a real estate agent, who then proceeds to book appointments at her leisure, unconcerned by the fact that at least one person actually works out of this house.

Me.

And that’s unfortunate for her. I wouldn’t even give the real estate agent in question a name if I didn’t plan on including dialogue. It’s hard to write a conversation without a character having a name though, so I’ll settle for saying it rhymes with Janet Webster.

See, I am not in any way the beneficiary of a quick sale of this house. I like it here and, unless the new owners are simply buying it as a rental, I will have to leave once the transaction is complete. I’ve never tried to sell property – I’ve never tried to sell anything really – but I would imagine that like most sales people, realtors are heartless sacks of no-soul that are pretty much just after their six percent as quickly as they can get to it.

This one is anyway.

* * *

I came home on Friday to find the front door unlocked, the curtains over my bed slung haphazardly to the side, my shower door open, and my sandals kicked under my bed. Apparently the house was shown to a family of drunken ogres. I kind of wish I’d been there to see it. Instead, I got to come home and clean up after them. I called Janet to express my unease at having people go through my things and to see if we could somehow work out a showing schedule that allowed me to be there when strangers were wandering through my house.

“I do not have to ask your permission to do anything,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I replied. “I live here.”

“For now. I’m in charge of selling the house though, and you can’t stop me from showing it.”

“I’m not trying to stop you. I’m trying to work out a better arrangement.”

“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I can show the house anytime I want to until eight o’clock at night and you’re going to have to deal with it. And when it sells? You and your roommate are going to have to move, most likely on very, very short notice.”

“Ma’am, I wasn’t starting a fight. What if I slow it down for you? I just… don’t want people… here… unless I am.”

“I am not going to be talked to like a child –“

“Then stop acting like one.”

“- and I will not be dictated to by some, some, arrogant tenant who–“

“You’re acting like a child again, Janet.”

“I am showing that house whether you’re there or not.”

“Well, now I don’t think you understand. I live here. I can be here all day if I need to be, and now it looks like I need to be. I was trying to work this out, but I can be a difficult motherfucker to try to show a house around if I’m not in the mood to play nice. So here’s what I suggest. I suggest you take your wittle bitty sign and you wittle wock box wit the key in it, and stop acting like an uppity bitch.”

“I am not going to be talked to like that!”

“Yes you will. Look, see? I’m doing it right now.”

CLICK.

Then I immediately dialed her boss.

“I have never been so insulted in all of my life,” I said. “She told me that I couldn’t stop her, and if I tried to call someone and complain she would say that I said all kinds of horrible things. I’m not like that! This really, really hurt my feelings.”

“I’m sorry sir. She can be brash sometimes, but that is totally unacceptable. I apologize on behalf of our company for her –“

“It’s not your fault. I look forward to an apology from her. Thank you so much for your time.”

* * *

The doorbell started ringing at noon yesterday, as I expected it would. I ignored it. If they’re going to come in anyway, I might as well not do anymore than I have to. I sat with my feet up on my desk, a cup of coffee in front of me, and Rage Against the Machine cranked as loud as my stereo could manage. My bedroom was going to be an uncomfortable place to hang out.

From over my shoulder I heard a voice yell. “Can we see this room!?!?”

I glanced backward to see an Asian couple and what must have been two or three of their friends following the real estate agent. I immediately changed songs as I waved them in. As they crossed my room to the bathroom, Blue Oyster Cult erupted from the speakers.

Oh no, there goes Tokyo!
Go,go Godzilla!

The agent snapped her head at me and I took another swig of coffee.

The pattern continued through the afternoon, the doorbell ringing and me causing what havoc I could. One couple was cautioned not to open the pantry door because I didn’t want the rat to get out before I could set a trap. Why couldn’t I turn down the music? Because I was making an old school mix tape, that’s why. Later in the day a middle aged woman walked in with another agent. “Is that the hooker?’ I asked. “You know I don’t like them that old. Take her to the back though, I suppose. I’ll get to her in a minute.”

A half hour later my phone rang. “What do you think you’re doing?” Janet yelled through the phone.

“Exactly what I said I would do.”

“You don’t have the right –“

“I do have the right. Until it sells I maintain all the rights that my lease provides me, including the right to the ‘quiet enjoyment’ of my property, and just so you’re aware Janet, I’m enjoying this very much.”

“Can we talk about this?”

“Nope. We could have talked about this yesterday, but someone didn’t want to have a conversation. Remember? So I am going to spend my day the way I want to, and that way doesn’t include a bathroom full of Japanese people.”

* * *

There are more appointments today and I’m not feeling too thrilled about it. My days are meant to be spent with caffeine and music in perfect solitude. These are my days. And while I inevitably can’t do much to stop the sale if it happens, I can take whatever lemons life gives me and throw them at this Realtor’s car.

I think I just heard the doorbell…

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.

Basak meets me at the airport shuttle drop off point in the busy city center. We hail a cab and we’re off to my new apartment. She shows me how to get in and gives me a tour of the apartment. I drop my bags in my room and then we’re off again. She wants to show me the neighborhood so I won’t be lost when I’m all alone at home during the coming weeks. We walk, and walk, and walk. Where we’re going, I don’t know. She shows me her workplace, says I can come there anytime if I need help with anything. And then our destination is in sight: Cevahir, the biggest mall in Europe.

She shows me to the grocery store so I can stock up on a few necessities. I feel awkward shopping in front of her so I try to make healthy choices. I throw a couple of nectarines and bananas into the handbasket, then I head toward the dairy section. Without having to tell her what I’m looking for, and before I can reach for anything, she stops me: “That’s not milk.” I look at her, completely befuddled. We walk over a few aisles to where the cereal is, and there we find a wall of milk boxes – the kind that would never survive in America, the kind that has a shelf-life of two years and needs no refrigeration. “Oh, the Turks do milk like the French,” I think to myself. I throw it in the basket, along with some cereal.

“I need shampoo and soap too,” I tell her. She takes me to the toiletries and I’m dumbfounded by the sheer number of shampoo bottles, not one of them with a label I can read. Right, first order of business: Find an English to Turkish dictionary. I look at her and say, “We need a bookstore.”

***

The next day Basak takes me to see the University I’ll be attending. We aren’t able to talk with the International Student Relations office because it’s after business hours so she heads home, leaving me to explore on my own. I wander the street in front of campus until I see the restaurant I’d seen in my classmates’ pictures back home. “God, I hope this is the place,” I whisper as I walk in the door.

A handsome man with cutting green eyes approaches the reception counter. Nervously I ask, “Is there someone here named Aşkın?”

With a charming Turkish accent he says, “I am Aşkın.” Now I’m really nervous. I’d hoped I could explain the situation to a waiter or someone and they could explain it to him in Turkish. But now here I am and he’s right here, and he has those eyes.

“Uhhhh….I’m a friend of Kristina…” I begin to say, but he cuts me off before I can finish my explanation. “Are you Rebecca?” he asks happily. “Yes!” I say with relief. With ease he changes into French and welcomes me, telling me that my friend Dana had been there earlier that day, but that he wasn’t able to speak with her because he has a very limited English vocabulary. He calls Dana and hands me the phone.

***

Dana and I barely knew each other at home but we’re practically inseparable here. We’re both so grateful to have someone to share this craziness with. We help each other navigate the buses, the cell phone companies, the campus, and the Turkish bureaucracy.

After three weeks of spending our days sightseeing or in the mall, wishing school would start so we could make friends here, we learn of a language exchange group that meets every Saturday evening for drinks and conversation. We’ve got only one week of Turkish lessons under our belt and this week’s meeting is on the Asian side, but we will not be deterred. We leave two hours early to ensure we’ll make it there in time, but when we arrive in Kadiköy we’re not in the right place at all. All we know is we’re near the shore of the Bosphorus. With several missteps and the help of a number of Turks – one of which walked us all the way to our location even though he and his girl friend were running late for some kind of family ceremony – we finally made it, half an hour late.

Dana and a Kiwi girl get wrapped up in a Turkish lesson, while I mingle with the French at the table. I eventually find myself at a table with three young Turks who refuse to believe my claim that I can already count to a million in Turkish. When I first sat down they had asked me what I’d already learned in Turkish.

“Well, I pretty much only know my numbers,” I responded.

“Oh really, so you can count to, what? Ten?” one of them patronizingly asked me.

“No, I can count to a million!” I replied with confidence.

So they proceeded to quiz me by writing down numbers, first easy ones like 99 or 25. Then moving on to the hundreds, and finally giving me what was to be their “Gotcha!” number: 126,573.

Yüz yirmi altı bin beş yüz yetmiş uç!” Success was mine!

***

My pasta and cereal rations are running low and I’m tired of wasting my money on restaurant food, so I finally head to the grocery store on my own for the first time. I have  a personal mission to buy and then cook actual Turkish food. After all, one cannot survive on pasta, cereal and white wine for six months without wanting to jump out a window at the thought of food (or so I reasoned). I see the bread for Dürüm and it’s decided that this will be my first foray into Turkish cuisine. I head to the meat section and inspect everything, trying to decide whether I trusted myself to cook chicken or not. I decide on spicy pre-cooked Kebab meat (or at least it looks pre-cooked and the picture of peppers and fire on the package clued me into the spicy factor).

Then I’m off to conquer the cheese section. There are hundreds of cheeses, none of whose names I recognize. I finally just decide to grab any white cheese and hope for the best. Somehow my random grab landed me with cheddar, for which I will be forever grateful. Tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, and a couple walks through the aisles for good measure and then I’m done.

Elated by the fact that I didn’t die from food poisoning, I invite Dana over the next day to try what I have now coined “The Turkish Burrito.”

***

I’m sitting on a bench with my earbuds in, waiting for the metro to arrive. A pre-pubescent boy sits on the other end. His younger brother sits between us – his little kid arm, sticky with sweat, resting against mine. “Pardon,” he says as I inch over so we’re no longer touching. He looks up at me and asks something in Turkish. I look down at him and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Turkish.” He looks confused and his brother gives him the 411. “Ah, Ingilizce?” he says, looking back at me. “Evet,” I say.

Now, excited to practice his English, he points to my earbuds and says, “What is this?”

“Music?” I say, confused by what he’s asking.

He looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “Where are you from?”

“California.”

Ah, Kalifornya.

And we have now exhausted this eight-year-old’s English vocabulary. So we sit in silence, until, just as the train arrives I see his face light up. He’s remembered something. “I love you!” he shouts over the sound of the train. I look down at him and laugh. I walk away to catch my train and as the doors close I know for the first time that I’m really going to miss it here when I leave.

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 thing I did after you moved out was rearrange the furniture.

Before your moving truck even made it down the hill to the interstate I was back upstairs, calculating the new equation of chair/couch/bed/desk that redefined “our” home as “my” home. It was easy; the strength I wasted trying to keep us together was more than adequate to the task. With all of your junk gone there was at last room to move, room to breathe. You took away so much but at least you left me with that.

Next I cleaned. Every spill, every stain, every unwashed surface you spent months ignoring I attacked. Your laziness towards housework had accreted in buildup behind the toilet, under the microwave and in all the little crumbs of half-eaten cat food scattered around the edges of the carpet. I swept and mopped and scrubbed, down on hands and knees with a toothbrush where need be. I mauled the carpet with the vacuum, running it back and forth, over and over, siphoning up piles of fur left behind by two cats I hope never to see again and the dog I’d give anything to have back.

I found the ashtray stuffed full of cigarette butts you left for me out on the balcony. Thank you for that.

When that was done I stripped the bed like a carcass, collecting the worn sheet set you’d left behind and hauling it down to the dumpster. A waste, yes, but it was too worn out to be donated to Goodwill. I warned you about that in the store, tried to tell you that the pets’ claws would hook on all those embroidered flowers and tear the comforter to shreds. “But it’s pretty,” you insisted, as if this were the principal criteria for the purchase of any household item, and I chose not to carry the fight further. When the animals proved me right you hated me for it, even while we lay as pages between those covers.

I organized the DVDs and the books and cupboards, discovering in the process that my copy of Shaun of the Dead was missing. My posters and decorations were repositioned and re-hung, liberated from the tyranny of a single bedroom wall. I did this all while playing CDs by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on my stereo system, thrilled I could once again listen to them without hearing your endless complaints of “Ugh! Chick music!”  

Every photograph of you and I, every image that suggested we had been together in any sense at all, I collected into a shoebox I shoved into the back of the closet, where it remains. I could have burned or shredded them, tossed them in the dumpster along with your sheets, but like it or not you are a part of my past, and I cannot burn you out of my memory. But I saw no need to leave reminders of that lying about.

When all this was done, when the apartment finally looked like a place where I lived rather than where I merely existed, I was still buzzing, blurry around the edges with unspent energy. It was early dusk, the sun still up in the air, and I doubted you’d even made it to the Arizona border. I went for a run, making sure to listen to my iPod so I wouldn’t have explain to the neighbors out walking their dogs why mine wasn’t jogging with me this time. On the way home I bought dinner from that Hawaiian barbeque place you hated, even though you only ever tried one dish.

After dinner I took a long shower, since there was no one around insisting she had to take a bath. I scrubbed myself the way I scrubbed the floor, and made a note to throw out all of those various little bottles of bath oils and emollients you left behind. When finished I chose to stay naked, faint steam rising off my skin in the apartment’s cool January air. I walked around the living room aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of my unclothed body. The lights were on and the blinds half-open, and I could hear you in my head, yelling at me about how someone would see, how embarrassing it would be.

“Fuck it,” I said to you-in-my-head, “anyone spending their time staring in through my windows gets exactly what they deserve.” And that was the last word on the matter.

I watched my DVD of Blade Runner, the film you always said you “don’t get,” because it is how I’ve christened every solo apartment I’ve ever had, and because it is my favorite, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.

When I finally felt tired I stretched out on the bed, now fitted with my old flannel sheets from college, and marveled at how much space there was, and how relaxed I felt in it. I avoided looking at the empty spot at the foot where the dog should have been curled up in a little fuzzball.

I thought about how much time I would have to write, without you around to constantly interrupt.

I decided to take up learning the guitar again, and to exercise more.

I wondered about the next person I would date, and the next person I would sleep with, and which would come first. 

The last thing I did after you moved out was send an email to my friends, everyone I should have called individually but just didn’t have the patience to, to bring them up to speed on the day’s events. Instead of paragraphs I wrote only two words:

“It’s done.”

The barefoot summer is nearly over.

My soles are dirty, maybe permanently so; they are also thick and somewhat wiser than they were when this summer began 2,714 miles east of here.

There are certain things one learns (or doesn’t learn) when driving the highway between New York and Montana.

“Joi, I hear you’re moving! Where ya going?”

“Kansas.”

Kansas?!” they would shriek. “Why are you moving to Kansas?!” As if I had said, “Siberia,” or “New Jersey.” Why, even banshees cry, Kansas, don’t they?

I’d have to go through some variation of the above several times a night in the months prior to leaving New York City. Most often, this would be shouted across a bar. Typically this would be one of the two bars I was tending at the time, but it just as easily could have happened when I was on the other side of the bar, already halfway done with my Hendricks martini, or Hendricks Collins, or hell, Hendricks and tonic if I knew the bartender was inept at making a 2- or 3- step cocktail. I had developed quite the Hendricks habit once I started my drinking-for-free career in New York. It’s inevitable once you are a bartender. Ok, not the Hendricks habit per se, but definitely a top shelf habit.

Sometimes I stuck to Chianti.

I have a penchant for good Italian wines. Actually, I also have a penchant for cheap Italian wines, if it’s on my dime. I truly believe you can’t ever go too wrong with an Italian red (I rarely drink anything other than red wine, so I can’t vouch for the whites). My golden rule for wines: You can always trust the Italians. The French, not so much. And forget the Australians with their far too sweet Shiraz nonsense. California can suck it, for the most part.

You might want to trust my opinion, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you either, as I know I can be bombastically opinionated. I’m not just a drinker with refined tastes. I’m not just a bartender either (no worries. I will not refer to myself as “mixologist.”) I’m all that and more! I owned a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for 4 years and managed or worked in several others after that. This was to supplement my main source of income (a career in social services is my chosen profession, but it’s not exactly going to let you lead a comfortable existence in a city as expensive as New York).

“What the hell is in Kansas?” they’d persist.

Bar customers are a demanding lot and I’ve come in contact with all kinds. I had a remarkable stint at a downtown strip club. I actually worked in the clothed portion of the club, a room with a separate entrance above the strip club itself, where they had a decent sized performance space for bands, etc. By “etc” I mean burlesque shows, comedy nights, porn parties. “Anything goes,” I was told. The catch was, I had to be the “anything goes” booker 6 nights per week. A big part of the job was dealing with my oh so charming Ukranian boss (the venerable owner of the strip club and unintentional downtown celebrity) who annoyingly reeked of salami. He didn’t speak to many of the girls who worked for him. In fact, he usually just referred to his female employees as “The Girl.” He called me by my name from day one, I’ll have you know. On better days he was prone to utter such bon mots as, “I am not a lawyer…but I am very…legal,” and during less jovial moods would sit upstairs in his office glaring at the security cameras to make sure none of the other bartenders were pouring too much, or heaven forbid, stealing (“I once caught a girl stealing from me. I fired her but gave her one more chance. I caught her again. Very bad things will happen to her.”)

I thought I had seen it all after working some pretty crazy nights in my own bar, but working above a 35-year-old Manhattan strip club attracted a whole different end of the spectrum. There was the night I was serving Kurt Russell on one end of the bar, and Moby on the other. They were attending someone’s engagement party. Kurt was very effusive when it came to complimenting the ladies present, including me. At one point he asked me, “Why are you so goddamned beautiful?” and then opened his wallet and splayed out all his cash on the bar. “Take it. Take it all!” he insisted as I rolled my eyes and ignored him. I mean, I’m no Goldie digger. I had a giant little girl crush on him in Junior High. He suddenly seemed so greasy and awful in that moment of indiscriminate generosity. Ok, in retrospect, he was kind of cool. Moby was just quiet and in a raucous environment such as this, it was unsettling. He also complained to the DJ that he needed to play something more dancy. It should be mentioned that my friend was playing 80s pop music. Kids in America, for fuck’s sake. And everyone except Moby was into it! So, deal with it, Mr Grouchy pants who only tips $1 a drink despite having sold all of his songs to various commercials, thereby making him a a billionaire. Yeah, fuck Moby. Not that I’d want to, I assure you. Kurt Russell, maybe. Moby sure as hell wasn’t telling me I was beautiful.

“But, how can you leave this? What are you gonna do in Kansas?”

After leaving the strip club, I got a job as a booker/bartender/Assistant Manager at a world famous drag queen/tranny club/restaurant in the East Village. Here, I was mistaken for a tranny almost every day of my workweek, usually by hopeful “tranny chasers.” In theory, I wouldn’t mind this. In fact, I’d take it as a huge compliment because, hello, have you seen these girls work platforms or stilettos? I sure as hell couldn’t do more than hobble down the rickety staircase to the bathroom in my sensible 5 inch Nanette Lepore sandals. They apply make-up better than any born female I know and they have bodies that would tempt Hugh Heffner out of his smoking jacket. So, go ahead, think I’m a tranny. This wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way these men would assume that I didn’t deserve respect because I was a tranny. And that, I’m sorry, is disgusting. Basic human decency seemed to be a lost art these days in a place such as this. I miss working there, despite the often rude clientele. Sometimes I miss the girls I worked with more than I miss my mom, although, I’ve never had a dysfunctional relationship with a job as much as I did at…Fortunate Chinaman’s. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. I’d go in on my nights off. That’s typically a no-no in The Unofficial Bartender’s Guide To a Healthy Lifestyle, but when drinks are free and you are surrounded by your friends, why would you go elsewhere?

But, they don’t have Hendricks. Or, a decent Italian red.

Nor did the other place I worked one night a week in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 4 months preceding my move to Kansas. I will plug this bar here, because it is, for the most part, drama free, as far as I’m concerned. Of course you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar or restaurant that is drama free. Hell, I daresay you’d be hard pressed to find any workplace to be drama free! Anyway, I worked at Park Slope’s only full time metal/punk/goth bar every Thursday night, Lucky 13 Saloon and this was my favorite, and easiest experience working as a bartender.

I digress. You probably will notice that I do that an awful lot. This isn’t about Hendricks. This isn’t about Italian reds, either. This is barely scratching the surface of my New York City bar experiences and that is all beside the point. And I’m still not answering the question of “Why, Kansas,” am I?

“You can always come back,” they’d assure me. “New York will always be there to come back to.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hope so. No, I know this is true. I lived through 9/11 (ahhh, no worries, no gratuitous 9/11 stuff here for at least another 3 weeks). If 9/11 could happen and New York could still survive, well, I think it “will always be there.” New York. It’s in my blood. Of course it will always have to be there as long as I’m alive.

Still, how to deal with the ache of missing it. At any point, some tiny memory will hit me. I’ll miss the rumble of trains on the elevated tracks overhead while sucking the dregs of a white fluted paper Italian ice cup in Ozone Park, Queens. I’ll think of my grandfather shuffling along with his beloved old mutt alongside of me on this day and think of how I’d scream as loud as I could to compete with the squeal of the trains. My grandfather is gone. So is most of what I loved about many neighborhoods. Yet, I still get mad when people say “New York isn’t what it used to be.” Can’t you say the same of Rome, Italy? Give New York a break, haters. I love New York. I will always love New York. I’ve traveled the world and I have traveled this country. There is NO place like New York. I grew up privileged and I don’t mean in a material sense.

In fact, I’ve always loved my city. My earliest memory is being in the backseat of my parents’ car. I could have only been 2 years old, as my brother was not yet born. I recall being enthralled with the tall buildings surrounding me. I recall lying down on the floor their car, the hump hurting my back, to try and see the tops of the buildings. As I did this, I remember the commercial playing on the radio. “More Park’s sausages, mom, please?” And I just had a feeling of love swelling up in me for this moment, for these buildings that became the night sky for me. Even for the kid’s whiny voice in the stupid commercial.

I had lived my entire life in New York and traveled to Europe, Africa and Central America. In this country, I’d been up and down the East Coast, to California, Nevada and Louisiana, but I had never been to the Midwest before last September. I admit it. How limited, a life without even a brief fling with the Heartland, and now I fucking live here.

Why, Kansas?

It’s crazy. I do love it here. Part of me always wanted to live in a big old house with a porch, which seems simple enough to anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. I adore my summer nights spent writing or reading to the relentless sound of cicadas outside where it is pitch dark and I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. Hard to think not too long ago, summer nights were spent walking home from work over the Williamsburg Bridge with Jeremy, drinking from a concealed bottle of Montepulciano and admiring the Domino sugar factory sign still lit up, not to mention the half-darkened Manhattan skyline seemingly looming right on top of it. Standing at the edge of the bridge, I vowed that I could swim the East River home on such nights, although I knew the strong current made it next to impossible to swim from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The distance appears to be much shorter than it actually is. New York is chock full of illusions, and many people become disillusioned living here, but that person would never be me. I still sob for such nights.

“So why are you moving to Kansas?!” they would all but demand after I’d ignore them for a while, or try and change the subject. But sometimes when I was feeling more generous, I’d answer.

“For love. I am doing it for love.”

This, the best of them usually accepted.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It’s been a week since I last saw you. Almost two months since we stopped sleeping together. Four months since you started dating someone new. Seven months since you moved out. Eight months since you shattered my picture of our future. One year since we moved into our new apartment together. Sixteen months since you photographed my sister’s wedding. Eighteen months since we returned from France. Nearly two years since I greeted you at the airport in Paris. Three years since we first moved in together. Three years and some months since you first told me you loved me. It was during the same trip when I took you to meet my parents. It had already been two months since I had first met yours. Further back in our history was our first fight: three and a half years ago (still one of my most memorable St. Patrick’s Days).  It was more than three and a half years ago that we first had sex. Almost four years since we began hanging out. And, it was nearly five years ago when we first met.

These are the events by which I have been marking my time – something I have been doing for far too long.

And well past when it should have ended. Yet I find myself sitting here at this computer with tears falling fast because I know that this is the true end of the era of you in my life. I first noticed it last week when person after person asked me when I am leaving. It is no longer the question of how long it has been since us. It is now only a question of me and what I am doing. And I realized that for a number of weeks now I have ceased to mark my time by you and have begun to mark it for the future instead.

It is less than one week until I board a plane to Frankfurt. One month from now I will be arriving in Istanbul and meeting my future roommate. Six weeks until my orientation. Two months until school begins. Six months until my return to Sacramento. From there on out it gets a little bit hazy. The one thing of which I am certain, however, is that I will be coming back to this place with all new experiences, none of which will contain any memory of you.

And when I return, my time will only be marked by when it was that I left.

These arrangements of empty chairs are what’s left of celebration, argument, meditation, sleep and revelation.  They huddle together like still animals in the cold.  From a chair beneath a plane tree, the round tracks of a cane disappear into the gravel.

The single chairs are absent of their poets, readers and afternoon philosophers.

Those side by side and face to face are absent of their lovers, their chess players, the soon to be married and the just abandoned.

The great groups of circles and strange half-moons have lost their lecturers, their students.

Some might find it difficult to love a person who intentionally pees on your stuff.  Perfectly understandable.  And when that person is a cat, well, the answer seems clear.  Get a new cat.  But then she looks at you with those big eyes and curls up in your lap, purrs in your ear, and greets you at the door like a dog.  Unfair, really.  There is no defense for that.  So you think well, they all die sometime.  I’ll just wait it out.  My cat died yesterday.

3 Mattresses
1 Couch
6 Couch Cushions
2 Stuffed Chairs
2 Tables
1 Piano
Countless pieces of clothing
Unfathomable loads of laundry
My mother’s hand
Several boyfriends

These are the costs Freyja racked up over the course of her lifetime.  I leave out, of course, the expected cost of food, litter and veterinary care.  Those I signed up for in the first place.  My father asked me repeatedly over the last fifteen years why I hadn’t given her away to one of her several, if unlikely, fans.  My answer was always the same.

“She’s my responsibility.  I love her.  Well, most of the time anyway.  Would you give me away if I peed on the bed?”

I think he wanted to say yes.

I adopted Freyja when she was a spitting, yelling, grabbing, tiny ball of sparse hair which all stood up on end.  I could see her pink skin through it, wrinkly and soft.  My boyfriend at the time had said he’d wanted a cat.  A beautiful, sleek, cat esthetically pleasing to the eye is what he said.  He was an artist so this mattered to him.  There were other kittens there that were far more attractive but, as they cowered in the corners she reached through the bars of her cage and tapped me on the head.  She grabbed at my fingers and yelled at me quite insistently and this way she made the cut. I was convinced then, as now, that personality matters more than looks.  In the end he loved us both despite our looks, although not enough to keep us and when we eventually split up she landed in my lap rather than his.

It was all the same to me.  In her younger years she was a wonderful companion to my older, very mellow cat, Arthur.  Arthur loved her company.  He used to hang his tail down over a chair and flick it back and forth for her to chase.  He groomed her and taught her how to walk across the back of the couch, nibble off the end of my morning bagel and the first two years of her time with us were virtually problem free.  Then we moved.

Because I didn’t have a place of my own yet, my parents gracefully took my cats while I located an apartment in Boston. Arthur did well but Freyja hid and not under furniture or anyplace you might actually be able to touch her; she hid in the rafters on the ceiling.  It took me a while to get settled but she remained on high making actual human contact difficult.  When I finally did find a place my parents thoughtfully offered to meet me half way to deliver the cats.  We agreed on a date and just as I was preparing to go meet them I received this phone call.

“We’re having trouble catching Freyja.  We might not…wait; wait, here comes your mother.  She’s BLEEDING!  Today isn’t going to happen, we’re going to the hospital!”

From the background I heard, “I’ve got her, Tom!  Screw the hospital, drive, drive, drive!”

It seems like maybe we’d overstayed our welcome.

In Boston she became a different animal.  She continued hiding, became fearful of other people, stopped enjoying Arthur’s company and she started peeing on things.  This made me very popular with my new roommate but at the time I didn’t care so much.  The girl was Single White Female crazy so if Freyja wanted to pee on her dirty laundry, I was all for it.  Go ahead, Mama!  I had her vetted anyway to be sure there wasn’t a medical problem there.  But even after being treated for a UTI, she continued the behavior.  It seemed like she’d found a way to be heard in a way her constant yelling wasn’t producing.

Behaviorists will tell you the “inappropriate urination” comes from anxiety.  I get it.  Sometimes I get a full bladder right before I on stage, so sure, I buy that.  Explain then why it so often happened after an anxiety-causing event.  Example: Upon return from a time a way, perhaps a gig, we would rejoice in our reuniting with much talking, rubbing and lap sitting.  All would appear to be well and maybe the day after, as I retired for the night, I would smell something rotten in the state of my bed.  She hadn’t done it the entire time I was gone so how was I to interpret this now that I’d returned, supposedly having taken away the stressor?

A. I am the stressor, not my absence. Or…
B. She was exacting revenge for having been left.

Knowing my cat as I did, it seemed clear that B. was the correct and final answer.

In her old age and moderate blindness, she mellowed.  Maybe the world became less scary when seen through a milky, cataract haze.  She spent her final months happier than she had ever been.  Preparing to leave for Germany, I was in a quandary about what to do for her.  Do I leave her in my New York apartment and look for a sub leaser who might love and care for her or ask her to adjust once more to a new life, not to mention survive the transatlantic flight?  But luck smiled on us both in the form of a friend who was able to see her negatives for positives and offered to take her until I made it back stateside or the inevitable happened.

“She is not an easy animal, you know.”

“Who likes easy animals?”

“Doesn’t like other cats or dogs, most people.”

“I don’t like most people either.  She’ll fit in just fine.”

“She pees on things when she’s mad.”

“Wish I could.”

She adjusted to her new home and second mom perfectly.  A cat who had spent the last several years in the closet, literally, not figuratively to my knowledge, she was an equal opportunity hater, suddenly was sleeping out in the open on the couch mere feet from the other cat.  She seemed actually to enjoy his company!  She loved my friend to distraction and vice versa.  Freyja passed in the way most of us hope our pets will, asleep in her sunny spot on the window ledge.  She didn’t feel a thing and, I hope, she was dreaming about her favorite things as she went, love, sun, food, and peeing on the bed.

R.I.P Freyja
1994-2009

It might be because this is my last summer in the Adirondack mountains of New York, for a while at least.

Or because my friend Amy is obsessed with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and their barefoot running.

Or because I just quit my job of nearly 10 years.

In any case, I’m conducting another experiment,