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La Isla Bonita

In the movies mean girls are pretty and privileged. In real life in middle America in 1994 they were doughy and awkward and solidly middle class and, well, like me. Because I was one.

Whether from amorality or narcissism or because of my tendency to overthink before acting, I don’t often regret things. But I regret to this day the way I treated Annie. She and Danielle and I were inseparable in our middle school years. Danielle and Annie had been friends first, and somehow I got let in, and it was all shared notebooks and matching outfits from then on.

We made music videos, lip-synching to the Grease soundtrack while wearing too much blue eye shadow. We dipped popcorn in ranch dressing and put Easy-Cheese on watermelon. We wrote love letters to our favorite movie stars Edward Furlong, Leo, Johnny Depp, Austin O’Brien, and Jim Carrey. We adapted our favorite R. L. Stine novels into plays and rehearsed to perfection; Annie and I were both born directors (read: bossy) and we clashed, but we worked it out. At first she was stronger.

Annie was the sporty one and had the best clothes, too. Danielle was the funny one and the prettiest. I was the school nerd one and also always trying to figure out which one I was meant to be. I was grateful that they liked me.

Danielle and I spent more time just the two of us as time went on. We had an easy chemistry and we both said what was on our minds. We both had a glimmer of a sliver of the tiniest chance of breaking out of dorkdom one day, a shot at being on the cool squad, which we were beginning to think was important. Annie had braces and nervous tics.

Danielle’s ma fed me panzerotti and her brother chased me around their yard. Annie was off at swim team or tumbling or some other achievement-oriented, type A, surely mother-suggested activity. We could never be sure where Annie was; there was an air of secrecy to her that grew as Danielle and I grew closer.

I bet on the day Annie found out about her parents, I was lounging in Danielle’s pool, singing as loud as I could to “La Isla Bonita” blaring from the scratched copy of The Immaculate Collection that lived in the deck boombox that summer. I bet while we were singing, she was sobbing. Or packing a hurried bag to run away and then changing her mind. Or lashing out in anger with her strong swimmer arms. I don’t know how she grieved, then or ever; she never told me; I never asked.

Annie’s parents were getting divorced, and not because of some secretary like it always was on TV. There was bad stuff, really bad; Danielle’s mom relayed it to us one horror at a time, and Annie’s past secrecy and tension made a lot more sense.

The situation could have made me realize how I’d slowly been cutting Annie loose, and reel her back in again. I was one of her two closest friends. I could have taught her how to speak out. I was okay at that stuff; I’d even been to Peer Listener camp to learn how to help people talk about their problems. Instead, I let Annie’s silence and her reluctance be the reason our friendship ended. I couldn’t deal, couldn’t coax feelings out of her. Role-playing at camp, I could help people with problems. In real life, Annie’s pain scared me. I didn’t want to visit her at her sad new apartment. I didn’t want to know what I now did about her life, and I certainly didn’t want to learn any more. There was enough change in our lives already, bodies rebelling and high school looming. And in the popularity game, Annie was a liability.

It was convenient to be apathetic. I never tried to help her. I wrote mean notes and backstabbed and ignored. The silence grew until it was all there was. We went to separate high schools the next fall, but our schools were only 15 minutes apart and we easily could have seen each other all the time. I don’t remember even speaking with her on the phone a single time.

Her story turned out happy, from what I can construct through the occasional internet search and third-hand word of mouth. The lessons and discipline paid off; she’s got a great job, and may have turned out to be the just-as-pretty one. I’m happy for her, and narcissistic though I can be, I doubt my cruel treatment affected her too long, but I’ll never know. There’s no Former Jerkface Friend request on Facebook, no “I betrayed her in her darkest hour” in the relationship drop-down on LinkedIn. There’s only mea culpa via blog, and the hope that somehow she can hear.

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leaning on towers

I chickened out on posting this on Saturday. Writing about national tragedy scares me: though I’m liberal as it gets, I’m not good at speaking politically, and my analytic abilities reach only to literature and relationships. But to say nothing seems so shallow. The very thoughtful writer (and marvelous person) Patti Digh does a wonderful service to the memories of the 9/11 victims by printing their names. Reading the list, I see the sheer number of people who died. In fighting my automatic reflex to scroll, I consider my tendency to rush, to skim, to always be moving on to what’s next and devaluing the crucial now. See Patti’s work at http://www.37days.com/2010/09/each-one-a-story-a-life-a-family-an-overwhelming-desire-to-live-to-love-to-survive.html. The title of her blog, 37 days, comes from the question “What would you do if you had 37 days to live?” To start, I would speak my mind about what happened 9/11/01, even though I fear my thoughts are unprofound.

I was on time for class that day, an occurrence so rare I almost joked “The world must be ending!” when I got into the classroom. For some reason, I held my tongue. Madonick was the best possible teacher to have just then. He explained the significance to us and kept us calm without bullshitting us. He let us stay with him as long as we needed.

When I finally felt okay to leave the comforts of the English building, I ran into the cutest boy I knew and watched BBC coverage of it at his place. I really wasn’t sure the world wasn’t going to just end that day. I wanted to break out, go crazy, kiss him, but I was too shy even to accept the beer he offered. The world might have been falling apart, but I was still a good girl, and good girls do not drink beer in the afternoon. Good girls do not kiss cutest boys who are not their boyfriends, and they certainly don’t skip their afternoon shift at the media library; good girls believe people need access to LaserDiscs and tape decks, even on the direst of days.

But soon after, I unraveled, and fast. I let what happened on 9/11/01 be the reason for my epic junior year freakout: dumping the boyfriend, dropping out of school, riding a motorcycle, flirting with bulimia, developing and acting on inappropriate crushes, quitting my library job, and making feverish art at odd hours. I became the girl who sure as hell would have kissed the cutest boy, fear (and morality) be damned. For a little while. I did summer school and caught up with my work and my nature: by senior year was all introspection and future-worrying and hanging back.

I got to New York for the first time three and a half years later. Through some bad planning, I ended up at Ground Zero with a freaking breakfast pastry in my hand. Super American. I was struck by how close together the buildings are there, how many people must have seen. It seemed more spacious on TV. Looking at the site I kept thinking of bodily cavities and the game Operation, and in my head the toy buzzer sounded.

On TV I could own it. I cried every time I saw a fireman. In person it felt like it was not my tragedy; seeing it in the context of the city made me feel like I would be preying on the sadness of the city’s people if I cried. I was a girl from the Midwest. Yes, it changed my country and my course in ways I’ll never fully understand, but on that day, at that absence, I was the foreigner.

This 9/11, I was blessed to spend time with five ebullient lady friends, one of whom lived in New York for many years. I tried to explain this feeling, this mine-but-not-mine oscillation, and she understood.

This friend, let’s call her Veronica, is such a cool girl, the kind my old self would never have approached. I’m happy that I’ve become outgoing in the past few years, confident enough to try befriending someone so new and lucky in the results. Still, hang-back ghost me whispers at me from time to time that I should watch it, that I should reel in the dork, play it safe. Veronica’s mom recently died, and I didn’t feel I knew what Veronica needed or how I could help. But I tried anyway, and maybe that small act was my tribute: being my boldest self, but in only the ways that help people, and to stop playing small. Being present, to honor the fact that I can be.

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numbers (1)

Cheeks

Little Rabbit

Learned to read

First crush, two boys

Kindergarten + Days of Our Lives

Young Authors, losing teeth, construction paper

Brownies is the coolest except for BSC

Teacher rides a motorcycle & teaches me to write

Spelling bee finalist, fouled up on “roommate”: two ems

Obsessed with My Girl; want to be a movie star

I am the second-tallest girl with the biggest chest (neither lasts)

Lightning happens. Megan is gone, not me; will never not miss her.

Theater, my Italian second family, my first gay boyfriend, lots of locker notes.

Wrong high school; making the homecoming float in my garage; wishing I were “alternative.”

Second year of epic three-year crush; most of my friends are actors; thrift stores & disco.

Second Music Man, first short haircut/prom/boyfriend/group of non-theater friends. I’m square; they’re not.

Skip Shakespeare for prom; wrong choice. “Theater major? Hahahahaha.” In over my head & in two different worlds.

UIUC, because my brothers did. Breakup in the Union. Sorority girl roommate. Sketch comedy lovefest & PDP theater company.

Directing & writing & acting & producing. Splitting time: quad in nerd dorm/fake shacking up. Gracie born. Library love. Mono: F*@k!

Towers fall, lose my sh*t, drop out, teach rugrats, ride motorcycle. Grandma dies during Bye Bye Birdie (not while performing).

Best friends & roommates in the world. Crazy outfit pancake breakfast. More library. Dancing with fruit. Graduating (miracle!). Packing up. Driving away.

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counterclockwise

May you live all the days of your life.
Jonathan Swift

Take away
the pounds put on in depression and margaritas and self-unawareness
the gray hairs that came too soon
the knowledge of what it feels like to really have your heart broken
your nephew’s diabetes
your mother’s heart attack.

Rewind the years of
stomach acid, self-denial, working 80-hour weeks paid in humiliation,
trying the wrong home and the wrong office and the wrong person.

Go back to college. Sort and keep
the play you directed, not caring that you didn’t really know how,
the moments you created things that made people laugh,
the beautiful friends and lovely boys who, for not ultimately working, are nonetheless lovely. Keep
the English classes (maybe join the discussion this time) and the film studies and that summer Anthro class where the professor showed you the ancient skeletons, spooning. Leave
the four months of mono, the confusing constant fog of depression and misdirection and the shyness that kept you from ever really saying what you meant.
You cannot leave the Towers, the world won’t forgive you, but you can leave the crippling sense that the world at any point could fall from under your feet that kept you even shyer and more trapped with an added side order of freaking crazy.

Discard the silly failures of high school that seemed so big at the time. So you did not get the part you wanted; so what? Whisper in the ear of that girl you are perfect, you are only this age once, wear the prom dress you want, not the one you think you should. Speak up; speak out; anyone who judges you will be forgotten in two years. You will not be executed for having opinions. Tell her for the love of God not to wear KHAKIS on her first real date! That small judgment is permissible, a blessing.

Remove the horrific parts of adolescence, the skin conditions and the mustache you were too naïve to Nair yet, the horrible ways teenage girls treat each other.
Keep most of the rest of those middle-young years and say frequent prayers of gratitude that you survived them so well when others got so scarred.
Undo the field and the goddamn lightning.

Mentally laser off the scars and revert to perfection the broken bones. Vacuum up and throw away the final crumbs of memories of grade school embarrassment. Somewhere
there is a girl playing next to a pond, making fairy villages out of twigs and pebbles and moss, who has no idea of the bad things that can happen in the world. Bottle up
her perfect confidence and use it as your elixir and go through your days with her heart in your heart, believing. Rail against
the brain’s nature to remember the bad and forget the good, and thank
your lucky stars, and keep on thanking.

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Little Morning

I wake up late, like I always do. Mom says I was born late, I guess I stayed in her stomach too long and that was the beginning of me being slow.

I was having the supervillain dream again, the one where the Joker and all the other bad comics guys are in our house fighting each other and I am in the coat closet watching them and hiding. I know it is just a dream because the Joker has a sword-thing in it and in real life the Joker does not have a sword. And it’s a million times better than that other bad dream with the library and the robot, or the one in the pet store where the snakes all break out of their tanks.

My nightgown is so cool, it has these bears on it and the bears are all different colors and they stand in a rainbow. Also the bears glow in the dark. Things that glow in the dark are my favorite. I have a glow friendship bracelet and shoelaces that came out of a little plastic egg in the machine at Jewel.

I go down to the kitchen and get out two brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts and put them on a fancy plate, the blue and white one with birds and a story on it. There is a man and a woman and a bridge and I think they want to be married to each other but they are not allowed to be, because they live on different sides of the bridge, and now they are sad forever, trapped on a plate. When I am grown up my plates might have birds on them but I will not eat off sad people.

I eat my Pop-Tarts cold because toasted they are gross. I am lucky: Star Search is on and then Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, my very favorite show. At the other end of the TV room there is a really big window called a picture window because it makes everything look like it’s in a picture frame. Sometimes we can see deer in it.

Sometimes a bird will fly into the window because it thinks it’s air and maybe secretly because the bird also wants to watch Robin Leach and eat Pop-Tarts. The birds always look very confused when they hit the window and then they need to sleep on the window sill for a little while. Today there are no smash birds, just my mom outside the picture window pulling stuff out of the garden.

After my Pop-Tarts are done but while the shows are still on I also play with She-Ra and Catra. Catra is supposed to be the bad guy but I like her better because her hair is dark like mine and also, I feel kind of bad for her because everyone is always so excited about She-Ra. She-Ra and Catra climb the cliffs that are really my mom’s bookshelves. And the side parts of the books are tall tall buildings. And then She-Ra chases Catra into the cave that is really the foot pedal opening of our organ. I am not supposed to play on the organ but it is such a perfect hideout that I can’t ever help myself if no one is watching.

Mom comes in after my shows and asks if I want to go to Stratford, which is the mall, or if I want to go for a walk in the woods. If we go to the mall I bet I could get the new Baby-Sitters Club book and also that we could get Taco Bell and not tell my brothers about it.

But the woods smell better and have lots of secret things like acorn caps to be made into doll hats and bright green round things that are somehow also chestnuts, and I could use my new yellow binoculars to look at things and wear my special boots that are almost as special as my mom’s. She is an outside adventure lady and also she reads lottts of books and I want to be just like her. I ask if we can go to the woods AND Stratford, and she says yes.
It is the best day.

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ad astra per aspera

The stars are better in Kansas, but they are best in Colorado. Every moment in the Colorado dark brims with magic because of those stupidly brilliant things. Their beauty is dangerous.

The Colorado stars made me think I was in love with this physicist. Who was inconveniently the best friend of my best friend who after years of resisting I was maybe supposed to start to date because this trip. The three of us spent too much time under that mischievous sky, playing drunken tag on a jungle gym, walking too long in the crisp cool air seeking out a party, winding to the top of a mountain in E’s Jeep just to look at the stars, just to look.

It was the summer after college and I had identity crises to spare. I had no plans and I believed I could have it all, and at first I excused my behavior as requisite post-college adventuring. It was the first time in my 21 years that I really shocked myself. Was this the new me, a fickle girl who fell in and out of love as easily and casually as changing shoes? I had always been loyal to a fault, and my loves and likes and crushes came with a strong sense of duty. I was an adapter, a people pleaser.

But in Colorado, the stars and the air crowded any good sense out of my Illinois head. It was the first time I understood the falling part of falling for someone. It felt just as accidental as my hundred clumsy injuries.

This dizzy-quick change had to be some kind of curse. Back over state lines under familiar horizons, I shook the sense back into myself and righted wrongs with the best friend, and it worked, for a little, then fell disastrously apart. I put those boys and that sky behind me and ambled on, but I was never the same; not the good Illinois girl or the Colorado changeling. I aimed for something in the middle, someone who could be spontaneous and free and caring and constant. Sense in my head and stars in my heart.

Photo by: Jasen Miller, under a Creative Commons license

Those sparkly bastards worked their magic on me over years and years. When the mountain man physicist found me online five years after we met, wooing me with witty emails, he was aided and abetted by the Colorado heavens. They whispered to me that maybe if I could fall in love with this man for real this time, I would be rewarded with a life of fresh air and wonder on the mountains under the glitter.

I went back to Colorado expecting to fall in love, betting on a three-day-long, five-year-old memory; a handful of emails; and the recollection of a splendid sky. It was just as beautiful, he was just as wonderful, and I was just as lost. I’d just been let go from a job I disliked anyway. I was still reeling from a terrible breakup. How convenient it would be to fall in love and give everything up and move to the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. How convenient to let stars and chance be responsible, to never really step up and choose, to stumble into something without the real and necessary terror of having chosen.

I started writing this in Kansas at the home of my future in-laws. Then I got in the car with my non-physicist boyfriend, and on roads I knew I drove back home to the apartment we chose together. The lights of the skyscrapers welcomed me home, manmade stars in comforting constellations.

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We felt something we couldn’t name. More each day, gray seeped in around the edges of our privileged college lives and quietly menaced the ordinary colors. Nothing was really wrong, but something wasn’t quite right.

Our creative writing professor taught us: ennui. Maybe we should have known it already, at twenty and word nerds. It comes from annoyance and to vex and to make loathsome, the sense of weariness and boredom. We were in the middle of college, disenchanted with our liberal arts majors, zero plans for the future that, uncaring, accelerated toward us. We wanted to enforce its speed limit. The three of us drifted together and allied against this gray creeping.

We fought it with crayons, reverting to our earliest methods of fun. We painted. Laura and I made fun of Dex, how we’d covered our canvasses already and he was still stuck trying to finish a nose.

We fought it with alcohol, with so very much red wine. On one night, with a pitcher of Long Islands Laura and I got some stranger to buy for us by batting our eyelashes at him, ignoring him after the money changed hands.

We fought it homeopathically sometimes, adding darkness to darkness in parks at midnight. Laura and Dex were small and quick and daring; I was thick and slow-moving, a slave to rules and order, afraid of everything. Still I swung and climbed through the night, park rules be damned. I had hated swings even as a six-year-old; now the queasy swimming sensation felt like a small victory.

Photo by 00hCaffiene via a Creative Commons license

Music worked, always, and dancing as silly as we could. The sound and movement reshaped the air around us and inside us and needled the edges of the gray lump, vexing what vexed us. We had these dance parties where we’d blast oldies out of my car in random parking lots, seeing if we could get strangers to join in while we created our peace while disturbing others’. Near the end of it all Laura made a CD soundtrack to our friendship that is the closest thing to a time machine I’ve ever known.

We were our best selves outside, barefoot, running through corn mazes and garden paths, rolling down hills. We wore the wrong things to parties on purpose, swore too much, and fed on arguments.

We broke out by breaking in. One Wednesday at midnight we decided to take off. We drove three hours to the city and broke into a closed-off stretch of lakefront beach. I had never climbed a fence before. We invented rituals and cast our sadness into the water, and it worked. We drove back to school, getting back just before class, and went to writing workshop exhausted and exhilarated.

Those gray feelings were growing pains, I can see now. Teeth hiding beneath the surface waiting to rupture and we the unsuspecting children without the language to name our pain. And we did grow up, and grew together and apart and in three different directions. And of course ennui shows up from time to time, pushing me from inside, and I fight it like they’re with me. I reach for colors; I swing.

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