YBR Blog

  • The Time I went to A Naked Party by Catharine Savage

    I went to a fairly liberal institution of higher education. To demonstrate our liberalness some of my classmates liked to host what were called “naked parties,” parties where people were naked… pretty self-explanatory. As a young college student with very limited experience being nude (publicly or privately), I regarded these naked parties like a 12-year-old girl would: I giggled and exclaimed “oh my god, weird.” I had no problem with other people getting naked, but me? I’ll stay fully clothed in my dorm room watching glee and eating oreos dipped in peanut butter talking about how hard it is to meet people. Thanks for the invite, though, I said to no one because no one was inviting me to these parties.

    But when I returned to campus for Junior Spring after studying abroad in the Fall, I was a new woman. Having acquired a more global worldview, substantial knowledge of feminist theory, and 20 pounds, I was bored with my reserved and predictable former self. I was sick of having body image issues because that seemed way too trivial. I was tired of being shy and quiet because I had way too much to say. And most of all, I was truly, sincerely, absolutely done with considering myself a boring person. And what better way to confront all of that than to attend a party where I would be required to let it all hang out?

    My opportunity arose a few weeks into the semester when a few friends were talking about going to a naked party that night. I inserted myself into the conversation and garnered myself an invite.

    We arrived at the door to the naked party and I was smacked with a wave of doubt. I’m not the kind of person who goes to naked parties, I thought. I should just head back to my dorm… and maybe get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s along the way, and maybe some peanut butterBut NO, I thought. This is my chance to do things differently. We opened the door and no one was there. At first we thought we were in the wrong place... until three naked humans suddenly emerged from the basement. Those naked humans started hunting down their clothes while my friends and I slowly took off ours: first shirt, then pants, then bra, then underwear. We were officially naked. We awkwardly crossed our arms to cover as much of our bodies as possible and headed for the basement.

    Then came The Grand Entrance. Because we were heading down to the basement, we had to descend a rough-wood staircase while the rest of the party-goers looked up at our naked bodies.

    I made it to ground level and was visually assaulted by all the wagging, bouncing penises. Welp here I am, I thought. A Naked Party. We made our way to the keg, because even naked parties have kegs, and we gathered our red solo cups just to have something to hold on to. We stood in a clump trying not to stare too hard and any single wagging penis for too long. One penis approached us. It was attached to a grad student named Brian. “Crazy party,” Brian said. It was comforting to know that opening lines were the same at naked parties as they were at frat parties. We all mumbled “yeah” and nodded. He put his arm around my friend Elizabeth and told us he was earning his Masters in Math. We all mumbled “cool” and Elizabeth took his arm off her and went to the other side of the room to say hi to a friend. Without missing a beat Brian put his arm around my friend Maddie, who promptly squirmed out of reach and left the group. So then Brian moved toward me, indicating that he considered me the third most attractive woman. He looked me up and down and said, “you look pretty uncomfortable.” This was not the positive, affirming experience I thought it would be.

    Not wanting to be rude-- and more importantly, not wanting to walk across the room in all my nakedness looking for someone I knew while also being terrified that I’d run into someone I didn’t ever want to be naked with-- I continued to talk to Brian. He did not improve. He drunkenly talked about how he hadn’t been able to meet anyone. He asked me how this whole naked party thing worked if people wanted to “go home together,” as he put it. He told me he did like my boobs. And he did so in a way that indicated that he only liked them a little bit and he liked nothing else. Then, he pulled me in to dance and whispered in my ear, “it’s convenient that we’re already naked.”

    Hell NO, I thought. Brian had crossed the line. I came to this party because I was sick of the obliging, reserved, scared-of-life version of myself that I had occupied ever since I became aware enough to have insecurities. I came to this party because I wanted to feel beautiful exactly as I was. I came to this party because I knew I was more of a badass than people acknowledged and I wanted actual, tangible proof that I was brave and daring and bold. I did not come to this party to have some drunk grad student tell me I would suffice for the night if no one else was available. And at that exact moment, as if the heavens were opening up, and God herself was reaching out to tell me, “you can do better than this,” Beyonce’s “Countdown” began to play.

    In a fit of self-saving heroic passion, I pushed Brian aside, took command of the dance floor and began to bust a move. At least, that’s how I like to remember it. In reality, I probably said something polite to Brian, like “excuse me” and desperately searched the crowd for my friends to come dance with me. And sure enough, they appeared and we all jiggled vehemently to “Countdown,” while staunchly blocking Brian out of our dance circle. Maddie exclaimed, “we are so beautiful.” And we all woo’d in response. And with that woo, I finally got that we-are-beautiful-just-as-we-are-and-right-now-we-are-naked kind of moment that I had hoped for. 

  • Have a Seat by Gina Watters

    The only bar near my gate was packed and every seat was taken. After the Tolkien-esque journey that is getting to O’Hare during rush hour on a Friday, all I wanted to do was sit down and unwind before my flight. I weaved my way through the dense crowd and waited patiently for a seat to open up. When one finally did, I sank into it and happily paid the staggering airport-bar price of $20 for a glass of shitty domestic Sauvignon Blanc. I sipped my wine and quickly became lost in a fascinating article of great cultural significance….which is to say I was reading about ‘90s sitcoms on Buzzfeed.

    I was startled from my reverie when the seat next to me opened up and a woman came out of nowhere and practically flung herself onto it. She asked me if anyone was sitting there. I shot her a big smile and told her it was all hers. Yes, my seat sister, I thought. Sit down and come to know the happiness I have found. But instead of picking up on my good vibes, she heaved a huge sigh and said loudly to no one in particular, WELL, I GUESS MY HUSBAND WILL HAVE TO STAND”.  

    I paused mid-sip. Was she talking to me?

    Determined not to shatter the peace I’d created for myself, I ignored her and went back to reading “20 Things You May Not Know about Saved by the Bell”. But the loud sighing continued until the long-fabled husband finally arrived, and she greeted him by announcing, I’M SORRY HONEY, BUT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU. YOU WILL HAVE TO STAND”.

    No ambiguity that time. This woman definitely expected me to offer her husband my seat. Ignore her, I thought. I mean, I have – on more than one occasion – pretended not to notice someone having a bowel movement in the middle of a city sidewalk in broad daylight. This should have been a breeze. However, unlike sidewalk defecators, ignoring this lady only seemed to increase the amount of crap that was coming out of her.

    I’M JUST SO SORRRY THAT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU, HONEY.” Although she was addressing her husband, I could feel her eyes burning into the side of my face. I MEAN, YOU’D THINK SOMEONE WOULD MOVE.

    Excuse me? I was here first. Why should he get a seat instead of me? I glanced to make sure he was not elderly, on crutches or – I don’t know – wearing high heels or something. But of course he was not. I had earned that seat. I’d waited patiently for it and paid $20 for the right to sit in it. The bad taste in my mouth was no longer due to the shitty wine.

    This was not garden-variety rudeness. No, this was a phenomenon I’d been encountering since around the time I turned 30. To this woman, her need to sit with her husband outweighed my need to sit. Period. It’s not always the case of course, but to a lot of married folk, single people eventually start to look like spare parts, kicking around, taking up space that could be occupied by “real people”. 

    Now, maybe this woman in the bar was just an asshole. Maybe she would have been just as worked up if she’d been prevented from sitting with her sister, her manicurist. Her pimp. I don’t know. But I was skeptical. When you’re a single lady of a certain age, once you’ve been expected to move, to step aside, to give something up (if only your dignity) enough times, you start to notice a pattern.

    I am unmarried. I might get married, but I’ve chosen not to yet. I’m not 22. Or divorced. Or a nun. I’m not a psychopath or a shut-in. I’m not Oprah. I don’t fit neatly into a demographic box and, let me tell you, that ambiguity makes people uncomfortable. Whenever I meet someone new, and they find out I’m 35 and single, they assume something must be wrong with me. That I am incomplete. That I am a half who somehow failed to become whole.

    And trust me, this stigma is real. If you don’t see it, congratulations! You’re either married, in your twenties, or a man. It’s real and it’s annoying. It’s annoying every time we single ladies get a wedding invitation without a “plus one” because those are for spouses only; every time a family visit means that we dine at the kids table and sleep on an air mattress while married couples eat with the grownups and sleep in beds; every time someone asks us why we haven’t “landed a man”; every time we have to work late for the same pay, while our married colleagues get to leave at 3:00 for their kids’ soccer practice; every time we pay more for insurance and taxes than married people do….

    Every time we’re expected to move so “real people” can sit together.

    I was in that airport in the first place because I was flying to yet another out of town wedding. Alone. At said wedding, I knew my married friends would ask when it’s going to be “my turn”. I knew whenever a slow song came on I’d have to duck into the bathroom to avoid being left sitting by myself in a sea of empty tables, like a character in the first half of a bad romantic comedy.

    I knew complete strangers were going to look at me and see one half of a whole.

    There was a time when I would have just given up my seat to avoid the whole ordeal. But that particular Friday night, in that particular airport bar, I just wasn’t in the mood to feel like a spare part. As I watched the woman and her (apparently feeble) husband try to somehow eject me from my seat using sheer will, I finished the last of my $20 glass of shitty wine, and ordered another. 

  • Making New Friends at Camp | Jennifer Peepas

    When I was nine, my parents sent me to sleep-away camp for two weeks. It took me only one week to bring the place to its knees.

    Now the prospect of sleep-away camp was awesome, because when you are a painfully awkward, try-hard bag of weird with no friends and mean stupid brothers, summer camp is basically your one hope for positive human interaction during the summer.
    Possibly, just possibly, there will be a cool counselor who will teach you about Dungeons & Dragons, and, by extension, life. And possibly, just possibly, there will be other kids who don’t already know what a loser you are and by some miracle won’t be able to smell it on site. And possibly, just possibly, for a week or so, you’ll fit in somewhere.

    However, the actuality of sleep away camp was that my tent was full of exquisitely groomed and extremely judgmental nine-year-olds who all went to school together and were already friends. They could smell my weird on sight.

    Here’s how meeting them went:

    Counselor: “Girls, this is your new bunkmate, Jennifer.”

    Me: “HI I’M JENNIFER I LIKE READING AND SOCCER …and sometimesscienceandEscapefromWitchMountain…”

    Them: “Why does sheeeeeee have to be here? Can’t we have Leeeeeetha?”

    The camp administrators had cruelly assigned one of their friends from home, Lisa, to a different cabin. So not only was I Jennifer, official weirdbag, with a last name that contains both “Pee” and “Ass,” I was the cruel instrument dividing them from a perfect summer of hanging with their bestie, Lisa.

    I tried really hard to be friendly.

    They tried really hard to let me know it would be better if I killed myself.

    It did not start small. Within the span of about two days, they put dog shit in my sleeping bag and put weird, gross things on my face while I slept. They stole my underwear and festooned it around the camp so that I had to go collect it from trees. They put my hand in warm water so I would pee the bedroll (that totally works, by the way). Worst of all, the Buddy System completely broke down where I was concerned, so I had to swim alone, eat alone, hike alone, and worst of all, pee in the creepy latrines alone. 

    Our tent counselor, Pammie, was busy learning to blow smoke rings and lose her virginity, or whatever she did at night, and was no help whatsoever. The other adults had the usual adult solutions: Ignore them. Be nicer. They are good girls from nice homes, I’m sure they will be reasonable if you just ask them. Are you sure you’re not doing something to antagonize them? Subtext: Be less weird, kid.

    I begged them to let me switch with Lisa. I just wanted everyone to be happy and to sleep through the night again. But in the name of “learning to get along,” they left me there. 

    They stranded me.

    So they deserved what they got.

    My opportunity for revenge came unexpectedly. The girls had started telling spooky stories at night, and one night one of them passed the flashlight to me. I didn’t want to, at first, but for the first time they were actually talking to me like a person, so I tried to rise to the occasion.

    You see, there was a ghost of a camper, and sometimes you would hear her footsteps behind you, or feel her ghostly hand in yours in the lake, or hear her weeping late at night in the bathroom. Her parents had been in a terrible accident when she was at camp and never came to pick her up, so she stayed here, forgotten about, until she died.

    The next night, they asked for more of the story. What happened to her? Where was she?

    It was the bathrooms, I said. The latrines were haunted. And I mean, seriously fucking haunted.

    You see, late at night you would go to the bathroom alone and hear someone crying it the stalls. And you might want to say "Psssst, are you okay?" but you must never do this. You must never, ever speak to that girl, because it's not a girl, it's the ghost. And right there with the ghost, is the thing that murdered her. It would wait until some girl answered back, and it would slither under the stall partitions using the sound of your voice to find you in the dark. It would reach out under the side of the stall with its claw—or was it a shiny silver blade?—and slash through your Achilles tendon. Now that you were immobilized, it would drag you away, into the woods, into its cave or shed or nest, and it would eat you and dress up in your clothes. 

    You'd be a ghost, then, and you'd be bound to it, and it would use you to lure in another little girl. You had to stay with it until you helped it capture someone else. Then you could go to heaven.

    How did I know this, my bunkmates wondered. 

    “Well, I have to go to the bathroom alone all the time, and one night I heard her in the next stall. “

    “Are you kidding? That was probably just a kid.”

    “No, she told me. She warned me what would happen. “

    “But you talked to her, so why aren't you dead?”

    “I pulled my feet up out of the way, so when it reached under the stall it couldn't find me. It couldn't get me, so it gave up. “

    “Are you saying that you saw this thing?”

    “Yes. And it's not a claw. It's a knife.”

    The knife I described was silver, and curved, and vaguely ceremonial in nature. It was also something that conveniently was in the display case of Genuine Indian Artifacts from the camp's "history" exhibit.

    I told them that after it left she said it was angry, and that now it is making her get two campers instead of one. So she's on the lookout.

    That night, three girls in my tent wet the bed.

    The next night, five of the eight of us wet the bed. The rest of us peed in the woods, holding each other’s hands and whispering comforting words.

    By the following day, the story had spread through the campers. The latrines were silent, completely empty, as 200 girls began to pee in the lake and bury their shit in the woods and form pee platoons to guard each other.

    On Day 5, I watched the ringleader of my former tormentors wet her pants in front of me because she had held her pee too long and was too scared to go outside or to the bathroom. Also on Day 5, campers had begun calling home in hysterics, asking their parents to come get them. Girls were fainting, having weird crying episodes.

    By Day 6, I was the most popular and interesting girl at camp. EVERYONE wanted to sit by me, to know me, to hear more about the bathroom ghost.

    On Day 7, the administrators sent me home from summer camp with seven days left to go for causing "a disturbance." They apologetically refunded my mom's money, said some words about it being a "bad influence" and kicked me out. My mom was both livid and embarrassed. She wanted to know what I did. I told the truth: I told a ghost story, and it freaked the other kids out. But they had ASKED. They asked me for a story. 

    Day 8 passed without incident at home. From the phone call that my mother got on Day 9, something like "chaos" and "mass hysteria not seen since the Salem Witch Trials" was going on at camp. The camp was very sorry they'd sent me home, and they'd like to invite me back, if perhaps maybe I could come and tell the girls that it was just a story that I'd made up and that it wasn't really true?

    Did I even want to go back, my mom wondered? Oh yes, I said. 

    On Day 10 I found myself back in my old cabin. It didn't smell good in there. It smelled like fear. And pee. My former tormenters surrounded me, white-faced and worried. When I had left so suddenly, they were sure the monster had gotten me somehow, and that the camp was just lying about kicking me out. So the rumor had spread that I was dead. These bullies who had hated me so much had turned my bedroll into a small shrine, with flowers and stuffed animals. 

    Here is where I was supposed to take it all back.

    Here is where I was supposed to apologize for scaring them, and tell them it was made up.

    Here’s where I said, “It's all true." 

    Jennifer Peepas is a writer & filmmaker who has lived in Chicago since 2000. Her obsession with advice columns led her to start one at CaptainAwkward.com. This story first appeared in Story Club Magazine
  • Beginning of an End by Brenna Kearney

    I’m currently at the starting line of a brand new journey. So far, there’s been no growth; I’m not a better a person for the struggle; and I can’t see the light at the tunnel. It has been exactly six weeks since my boyfriend came over to my house on a Friday night, ate my pizza, drank my wine and ended our relationship, which tragically kept me from watching an episode of Dateline NBC. So … here I am, facing a rather unhappy beginning, one I truly believed I wouldn’t have to face again: the beginning of an end.

    I’d forgotten just how heavy heartbreak feels. My entire body is dead weight, like Weekend at Bernie’s level, only there’s no Andrew McCarthy and that other guy to carry to me around. I have to do it all myself. These days, it takes all my remaining strength to throw my four tons of dead arms and legs onto the couch after work and not move for an entire evening while I listen to sad songs from the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack. Ed Sheeran is my ginger-haired shaman and he’s doing his best to carry me from darkness to light, but it’s a big job and this particular heartbreak feels so heavy that I can’t seem to get out from under it long enough to step back, gain some perspective and recognize it for what is, which is temporary.

    Aside from the overwhelming heaviness it’s hard to put the rest of my feelings into words. When I was out of full-time work, I spent a lot of time sitting in coffee shops, drinking bottomless cups of $2.50 coffee while applying for jobs and jotting down ideas for a mystery novel. One afternoon, I was staring out a window that faced Broadway in Edgewater and this old man who just looked like he was tired of life shuffled by very slowly. He stopped in front of the free newspaper containers on the corner, the Red Eye and the Chicago Reader, bent down, gathered up as many papers as he could fit in his arms and then threw them, all of them, all over the sidewalk. He just kept grabbing papers until they were gone. It was windy that day too and the papers floated across the street and hung in the air long after he shuffled out of view.

    At the time I had no idea what to think. I laughed, at him, which I regret now. What would drive someone to do this? He wasn’t angry; he didn’t yell; he didn’t cry. I didn’t understand, but now, when I think of how I’m feeling or someone asks me how I’m feeling, that scene is what comes to mind. And that’s not some allusion to American Beauty and that asshole filming a plastic bag or that Katy Perry song about an empty plastic bag representing how empty you can feel sometimes. It has nothing to do with the beauty of the floating paper or emptiness. Sometimes you need to throw something, sometimes things are messy and you need to mess it up more. Sometimes words aren’t enough because they just can’t do justice to an emotion. That old guy found a truly inspiring way to express what he was feeling, which I’m guessing was along the lines of, “Fuck this. Fuck feeling like this.” Or maybe that’s just what I’m feeling.  Anyway, thank you, crazy old man, for that valuable lesson.

    And that’s really the only progress I’ve made so far, making that connection. I don’t know the actual order of the stages of grief; I just know that there are stages because my mom keeps sending me articles to remind me that I’m going through stages. “You’re bargaining, Brenna,” she tells me, or, more frequently, “You’re in denial.”

    And yeah I am. For a couple of weeks, I actually thought that I could convince him that he was wrong. I thought if I kept telling him, and by telling, I mean texting him because that’s the world we live in now, that he’d made a mistake, he would realize it. He would realize that love doesn’t happen all the time, though it might look like it—I’m speaking now to all of you summer lovers who are holding hands and kissing in the sunshine, which is making me very very unhappy. Please stop. The problem for him seems to be that he doesn't know what love is, except that he believes the universe will show him the way to his one and only, or so I finally learned while he ate my pizza, drank my wine, disrupted Dateline NBC and ultimately ended our relationship.

    I wouldn’t trust the universe with something that big. First there’s a lot of evidence to lead one to believe that 1) there is no such force and 2) if it does exist it might not be benevolent. I mean what if the universe decides you should be with an asshole?  Too bad, universe picked, so enjoy your life with an asshole. When it comes to love, I don’t know why you would want to take yourself out of the equation.

    I think love takes you by surprise, not like a lighting bolt, like oh god; this must be love because it’s scary and it hurts. That’s not love or at least not the kind that lasts. I think real love just occurs to you. One night, he is dropping you off in front of your apartment after dinner and suddenly saying goodnight feels insufficient. Instead, the only thing that comes into your brain is, “I love you.” It’s your head that knows long before your heart, and from that point on it is a choice you make every single day, a decision to love someone else.

    But now that I’m over a month into awful shit, I can finally admit that I did see this coming. Yes, it came out of nowhere in the sense that I thought we loved each other enough to work a bump in the road, but now I see that I loved him enough to work on any bump in the road but he grew up in Chicago and in Chicago, you don’t fix a bump in the road; you wait until it becomes a pothole large enough to swallow an entire car and then, and only then, do you dump some asphalt on it, making it much larger and more destructive bump in the road.

    Scientifically, I know the heart is only a muscle. It just pushes oxygenated blood to the edges of your body. I know this. I know that is its job, the beating, is just to keep your organs going and your brain functioning. But I feel this there, in the center of my chest. My heart is still so full of him and my head is full of memories and expectations for the future, which makes his absence … breathtaking.

    Time and space. Stay busy. Go out every night. Drink as much as you want. Cry hard and don’t be embarrassed. Don’t cry. Don’t talk to him. Don’t text him. Don’t see him. Get out there right away. The best way to get over someone is to get under someone. Try Tinder. Go on vacation. Watch something that makes you laugh. Surround yourself with friends. The firsts are hardest. Don't be alone. Time and space. Time and space. The only thing you can do is give yourself time and space.

    I feel like I should know how to handle this by now, but, I’m really no better equipped to face loss in my 30s than I was in my 20s, which was the last time I had something possibly enduring come to an end. I imagine this is where I will be for the foreseeable future because love takes its time to develop and to dissolve.

    I do know that healing starts with forgiveness. And I don’t mean forgiving him, the one who walked away without even trying. I have to forgive myself. I loved where it wasn’t wanted and that’s okay.  Love is a gift, as much in the giving as in the receiving.  So I’m working on forgiving myself and focusing on the positives. I mean won’t miss another episode of Dateline NBC now. 

  • When My Mom Was an Astronaut by Jennifer Peepas

    Perhaps you too are obsessed with the theory that there are infinite parallel universes, some nearly identical to our own but diverging to contain all of the tiny choices and chances that almost happened, but didn’t. One theory goes like this: every choice you make creates a universe where you made a different choice. Each of those decision points also diverges. Multiply that by every human, animal, fish, flea, and atom and you have the concept of infinity. This is why people believe in bullshit like soulmates. Think of all the choices and the entire chain reaction of events that first brought you face to face with the person you love the most in the world. He wrote to you on that dating site, and you wrote back, and circumstances led you both to be there at the same time in the first place. And then, you caught this bus and not that one. You were late but he waited for you. Now go back further. His parents met, and after they did, that cell collided with this one. And your parents did the same for you. And so on and so forth, backward and forward through time, infinitely, forever. How tempting it is to think there is some force, guiding us irrevocably toward the people or places that will make us happy. How close we come to never existing at all.

    My name is Jennifer L-e-i-g-h Peepas. It was almost Tammy L-e-e (Something Else). I have two birth certificates, one with each name, the date on the second one dated eight months later than the first because it was changed when my adoption went through. I have always known that I was adopted — my parents didn’t keep it from me, though the adoption was closed and I didn’t know that Tammy Lee was my alternate name, specifically, until a few years ago. But I have always been aware of her, this other self, who belongs in a completely different family, hanging out like a shadow in my blind spot or on the other side of an invisible wall. Adopted kids understand parallel universes instinctively.

    Once, when I was about seven, I decided to go and find them: my “real” parents. I would follow the little stream near our house until it became a river and then I would find a talking bird/a kindly wise woman/seven dwarves who would recognize me and lead me to the castle, where my parents, the king and queen of Central Massachusetts, would welcome me with a feast lasting seven days and seven nights, and I would meet my sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins and we would dance under the stars and ride in fine carriages through our sparkling, possibly Emerald, city. I put on my Brownie uniform, packed some supplies in a little red wagon, put a leash on our Great Dane, Muffin, and told my older brother where I was going so that he wouldn’t get in trouble for losing me while babysitting.

    My brother, who is also adopted, knew something about this kind of quest, though his story is more of a Hansel and Gretel tale of a family where there was not enough of anything to go around. He and my younger brother, aged 7 and 4 when they came to us three years before, had developed many impressive life skills over the years, like hiding canned goods between the loose boards in the back of their closet and slowly removing all the quarters from my piggy bank but leaving the smaller change so that it would still seem full.

    As a lost baby princess, I was glad of my brother’s wisdom as he helped equip me for life on the road. Peanut butter. Jelly. Bread. All the canned goods and crackers in the house. A 50-lb bag of dog food for Muffin. Then we added my favorite toys. I tried to tell him that my real parents would buy me all new toys, and that he could keep the old ones, but he made a pretty good case that I’d want at least some to get started with. So on went the Barbie camper, the Legos, the Lincoln Logs, and a knee-high battery-operated Godzilla who breathed plastic fire. Then we needed books, of course. The Secret Garden. A Little Princess. Heidi. All the Lost Rich Kid Classics. An old sleeping bag of my dad’s. Some changes of clothes.

    I don’t know how much the towering stack of all I held dear in the world weighed, but I do know that our driveway is a hill. When I lost my grip on the overstuffed wagon, it rolled down that hill and crashed into one of the garage doors with a spectacular sound. My brother helped me put everything back in the cabinets and my room and together we dragged the giant dog food bag back to its spot. “I think the Dukes of Hazzard is coming on, if you want to watch it,” he said. I said, “Okay,” and hugged Muffin so tight that she yelped and bit me.

    That doesn’t mean I stopped looking for my other family. Left alone in other people’s houses, I opened wardrobe doors and checked the backs for snow-filled woodlands. I stared into mirrors for hours to see if I could fall in. Every trip to the city was a chance to possibly glimpse them or their trail, and if we’re being honest, finding them was becoming more and more about findingherMy. Real. Mom. She could be anyone, anywhere! The lady with the cool beehive in line at the bank. The one with the pixie cut and the bicycle who rode alongside our station wagon and waved back at me when I waved to her. Other real-mom-crushes included, in no particular order, Anna Devayne, a character on General Hospital played by Finola Hughes, Natalie Jacobson, a local newscaster, and Jennifer Beals’ character from Flashdance who needed to give me away so she could follow her dreams and be a dancer, just like I was gonna be, wearing my bathing suit as a leotard and executing sexy dances with my four-poster bed as a ballet barre/stripper pole. My imaginary real dad in all of these scenarios was Peter Jennings, anchor of World News Tonight.

    This all reached a fever pitch in 1985, when Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen to ride the Challenger space shuttle on a mission. I fell completely in love with her. She was a mousy brunette with brown eyes, like me. She was from New England, like me. Yeah, so she had a husband and other kids and was nowhere near Leominster, Massachusetts in 1974, but don’t bother me with facts. As The New York Times wrote, she ”emphasized the impact of ordinary people on history, saying they were as important to the historical record as kings, politicians or generals.” Ordinary people, like me and Christa, my real mom, ordinary women, we were as important to the historical records as kings, politicians, and generals. I watched all of her TV appearances. I got my hair cut and permed so it would look like hers, and I learned to imitate how she sat and spoke. I brought her up in every single conversation. I studied photos of her to see if I could see her hands, because I have weird bent pinkies and I’ve always thought that if I’m ever in the same room as my birth mom, that’s how I’ll know for sure. I stared also at her husband, Steven, and her children, Scott and Caroline, looking for a resemblance and wondering if they’d like me when they knew the truth about Christa’s long-ago fling with Peter Jennings.

    My chance came when my 6th grade class wrote letters to congratulate her for being chosen for the space program. For months, all of my diary entries had been addressed to her, so it was tough to boil all the information down to fit on an index card sized cut-out of the space shuttle. In the end I went with:“Dear Christa McAuliffe, you are my hero and my favorite woman on earth (and in space.) Love, Jennifer P.S. Please write back I have something very important to ask you. P.P.S. My home address is on the back of this card. P.P.P.S. Thank you.”

    I don’t know if she ever read my letter. I do know that she never wrote back. On January 28, 1986, my twelfth birthday, she got into the space shuttle with six other astronauts. My classmates and I ate the birthday cupcakes my mom had baked for everyone and watched the launch on a TV that had been wheeled into the classroom for just this occasion. High on sugar and on the rush of seeing the greatest person in the entire world do the coolest thing that had ever happened, for exactly 73 seconds I was (secretly) THE happiest and proudest person on the planet. My heart nearly exploded. Seventy-four seconds after launch, the shuttle exploded. Everyone on board was killed. The newscaster narrating the launch talked calmly about “a possible malfunction.” But our teacher had seen what we had seen. She got up and stood awkwardly in front of the TV, blocking our view, and all of us did what any human would do in that moment; we tilted our heads and tried to see around her. The wailing came later. I heard it dimly, at first, as if it came from outside the classroom, from outside of space and time. I have had to take other people’s word that it was coming from me.

    That night I took all the pictures of Christa down from the bulletin board near my desk, and, for good measure, ripped out all of the pages from all of my diaries and tore them into tiny pieces. My mom found me doing that and tried to stop me, and I yelled at her that she wasn’t my Real Mom and what did she know, anyway? This is the nuclear option in adopted kid-adoptive parent fights, one of those things that is both true and not true in a way that makes it the worst thing you can possibly say. I’m not a monster — I had done my best to keep my constant Are You My Real Mommy? auditions incredibly secret from my MOM-mom, whom I loved — but in that moment she clearly knew that I needed to destroy something. She backed slowly out of the room so that it wouldn’t be her.

    I found my actual birth mom, a few years back when Massachusetts opened its adoption records. We’ve never met in person, but we write letters and are very evenly matched in online Scrabble. My birth dad’s name is Richard Smith. She didn’t know him well, and lost touch with him after they hooked up. Sometimes I send her an image from one of the 57,000,000 Google results for Richard Smith, the goofier the better, with the subject line “Dad?” You never know. I have a half-sibling who doesn’t know about me. I study the few Facebook photos she’s uploaded that aren’t of her dog to see if her pinkies look like mine. Maybe someday I’ll find out.

    A signature on a form and I am not Tammy L-e-e, but Jennifer L-e-i-g-h. Two horny teenagers fail to meet in a finished basement in Massachusetts in 1973, and I don’t exist at all. Or they meet, but bad unsexy music is playing on the stereo, or their parents walk in on them, or (unlikely, but still possible) they’ve actually had some kind of sex education talk and gotten their hands on birth control. There are so many possible universes where there is Tammy Lee, no Jennifer, no me. In some of the other universes, that faulty O-ring didn’t break on the space shuttle that day, and Christa McAuliffe taught her lesson plans from space and went on to do many more great things. In one of them she answered my letter, and okay, maybe she wasn’t my mom in any of the universes, but in one of them she did become my best friend and we went on tour together teaching kids about history, space travel, and science, with Muffin the Great Dane and Steven and Scott and Caroline along for the ride.

    I still think about accidents, parallel universes, and fate. I think that what we have is not a destiny but an infinite series of choices and an even more infinite series of accidents. In the universes where we are happy, we claim the accidents we love best, hold them tight, and know them for miracles.

  • Push It by Eileen Dougharty

    Panama City Beach is the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast of Florida, known to many as “the Redneck Riviera". The hotel van is quiet as we take in the flashy sights of highway 98; miniature golf, herbal ecstasy, tattoo parlors, and go kart racing as far as the eye can see. My crew and I have no interest in talking after being stuck in an airplane together for ten hours. I cannot wait to get to the hotel and proceed with my post work ritual: stripping off my flight attendant uniform, getting some food to go, and doodling on my phone.

    I have a rather unsettling relationship with my phone, especially when I travel.  I resent the pull of it, this device that lulls me into thinking I might have something unique and special to offer my cyberspace community, masking the fact that I’m bored and alone in a hotel room. But when work is over, I cannot wait to turn it on to see what I’ve missed, marrying solitude and companionship in the palm of my hand.

    We check into our rooms and I waste no time getting upstairs to zone out with my electronic pacifier for an hour or two.

    My email tells me I have a doctor’s appointment next Tuesday, a package being delivered tomorrow, and a reminder my antivirus program is about to expire. I open Facebook and scroll through the newsfeed, in search of just ONE thing that might give me a little dopamine surge. My high school crush is at the gym, and a friend of a friend is eating a burrito. There's no shortage of inspirational quotes, quizzes, listicles, rants, and humblebrags, as well reminders for events I'm not going to hosted by people I'm not sure I really know. Twitter is 140 characters of #whocares. My phone service begins to drop in and out, and with it my internet connection. Even the local clock keeps waffling, as we’re straddling the line between Central and Eastern time, making the phone incapable of doing even its most basic job.

    It’s clear I need to put on damn pants and venture out to find some food, so I can take a sleeping pill and be done with this day. Only eleven more hours and I am so out of here.

    The phone’s almost dead from my quest of trying to find anything worth a damn so I turn it off and leave it charging in my room.

    When I hit the street, I see a billboard screaming “Pineapple Willie’s, next right!” Close enough for me.

    A perky teenage hostess greets me with “Just one?” “Yep, just me.”

    “You wanna sit at the bar?”

    “Sounds good.”

    The scene outside is a vacation postcard come to life. Sun soaked college students playing volleyball, kids building sand castles, older people reading books under huge umbrellas.

    I eat by myself fairly often, but not without my phone or a book. Certainly I can bear to be alone with my thoughts for as long as it takes to get food to go.

    I order a beer and some deep fried alligator, noticing that the bar is not particularly busy. I have it all down to a science, how to finish the beer right as the hand me the plastic bag and the check so I can be on my way.

    “Alligator’s a good choice,” says the guy next to me.

    “Yeah?”

    “Yep. Local favorite. You ever had a pineapple upside down cake shot?”

    “Can’t say that I have.”

    “Well, we’ll just have to right that wrong right now. I’m gonna buy you one.”

    His name is Ron and he’s just come from getting a tattoo across the street. He peels back the bandage to show me the Air Force symbol, with the words “AIM HIGH, FLY, FIGHT, WIN” on his chest, still bloody and covered in Vaseline. I tell him it looks great, because Ron is so damn proud of it, I can't help but like it too. Ron appears to be in his late thirties and he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world besides drinking cake shots and showing off his new ink.

    Ron and I make small talk about big things. He’s a master sergeant after 17 years of service, so he gets being in a plane all day. He doesn’t know anyone in town yet as he recently moved from San Antonio. He's not married, but he does have a pit bull named Cletus.

    Bartender asks if I want another beer and tell him I do, and tell him I’ve changed my mind about the food, that I’ll eat it here.

    I ask Ron what he does with his time, and he says he spends most of it working. I ask, “Don’t you get lonely sometimes?”

    “I sure do.”

    “What do you do when you feel that way?”

    “I go out and talk to people.”

    “You mean, like, strangers?”

    “Yeah, sure. Strangers are just friends you ain’t met yet. Even if I don’t feel like talking, I just come down here to the beach and watch people. They’re on vacation, man. They’re so alive...this is their time they’ve been saving up for and dreaming about.  They’re just so damn happy; you can’t help but feel it too. It gets all over you if you let it.”

    “I like how you roll, Ron.”

    “Walk the beach on your way back to your hotel, you’ll see.”

    Ron finishes his drink, says he has to get up early. He writes his number on my hand and tells me I can only use it to call because he has a flip phone, and T9 texting is a serious bitch. I laugh and thank him for the drink.

    After dinner, I walk the beach as the sun is setting and I’m surrounded by people smoking cigarettes, packing up their beach bags, yelling at their kids to get out of the water. Ron’s right, their joy is contagious when you really tune into their frequency. When I cut back up to the highway, there’s a dive bar with a sign that reads "KARAOKE NIGHTLY! ICE COLD BEER, NO COVER.”

    If only I had more time.

    My instincts were right about my phone providing me with connection. The secret was in the OFF button, all I had to do was push it.

  • Come and Knock On Our Door by Eileen Tull

    I experienced my first pangs of sexuality at the tender age of seven. I was sitting in my friend Sarah's living room and we were watching a movie, a movie that I wasn't supposed to be watching. I was always watching movies I wasn't supposed to be watching at Sarah's house because her parents were "Protestants." To me, full of original sin from birth and full of Catholic guilt ever since, it was a "free-for-all." Meat on Fridays! Taking the Lord’s name in vain! And watching dirty movies. I was and always have been a bit of a rule-follower, so I wasn't totally comfortable watching this inappropriate film, laden with sexual references and overt bathroom humor. But, as you can probably tell, I have a bit of a bad girl streak in me. So, I was enjoying it, this movie, this forbidden flick: Problem Child, starring John Ritter as a guy who adopts a child who turns out to be...a problem.

    In this film, there are a few moments of implied sexuality, tame by today's standards, but at the time, I felt like Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. I can't remember the exact moment that triggered my blossoming sexuality to bloom, because, truthfully, I haven't watched the movie since. I just know it'll never be as good as the first time. But there's some hinted sexuality, I think John Ritter falls into a lady's cleavage or there's a moment of open mouth kissing with some over the clothes heavy petting. And as seven-year-old Eileen witnessed these images, something started to happen. A heat started rising up from...you know...the bathing suit area...up into her tummy, what is this feeling? Is she hungry? Scared? Both? Yes, both. The feeling dissipated as the next broad comedic sight gag came into play, but it had happened. Sexual feelings. And you know that when Three's Company's John Ritter playing a put-upon father figure is the person who ignites fire in your loins, you're in for a rough ride.

    Seven-year-old Eileen took those sexual feelings, and politely buried them deep into shame, like all good straight-A, white, heterosexual suburban Catholic girls from Ohio should. I had a pretty dirty sense of humor as a teenager, always the person to push a joke to its extreme, find the dirty context in any comment, queen of "that's what she said" quips, ending many sentences with "if ya know what I mean." But when it came to real discussions of sex and actual sex acts that real people were undertaking, I was suddenly uncomfortable, squeamish, and bashful. It was very confusing for my high school friends, we who were just about to come of age in the Sex and the City-era of sexual openness with the girls over cocktails (or in our case, Starbucks Frappuccinos). I talked like a Samantha, walked like a Charlotte, and generally hid in an emotional corner.

    I was sixteen and I had, yes, already been kissed. I had kissed my first boyfriend a year earlier whilst sitting in a room full of our friends, all watching Orange County in the heyday of Jack Black comedies. My Catholic guilt had kicked in swiftly after the first time we "Frenched," and I wept in his car when he drove me home. But at the same time, I enjoyed it. It felt bad to feel good, good in that sinful, way-of-the-flesh way. Does tongue-kissing my boyfriend make me a slut? Is that what a slut is?

    But this is sixteen-year-old Eileen. So much older. So much wiser. I had just arrived home, before curfew, from a date with a handsome older man, a senior at a neighboring high school. We had watched A Fish Called Wanda and dry humped furiously after. I was still hopped up on hormones and the raw sexual magnetism of Kevin Kline. And John Cleese. And Michael Palin, let's be real here.

    So I decide that this night is the perfect night to try my hand at what the women from Sex and the City called "masturbating." I had very little know-how of how to go about...doing that thing. I had never done it before, because it seemed so absurd poking your own vagina until you screamed? What’s the appeal? But tonight I was still feeling hot in the bathing suit area with that scared-hungry emotion in the pit of my stomach.

    I decide to take action to get me some action. Action being the Internet. This being the early 2000s, my Internet access is limited to a dial-up connection to a large desktop computer in our living room, the most public room in the house. "Googling" is not yet a verb, so I “Ask Jeeves” to search for "porn." A lot of results come up.

    Too scared to click on any actual videos or images, as my parents sat in the other room watching Fox News, I find myself reading an erotic Xanga Journal. If you don't remember Xanga, it was an early blog type of website for people with too many feelings. I, of course, have a Xanga of my own. This erotic Xanga chronicles the adventures of Terri, a bored but buxom housewife who goes on a ski trip for the weekend, and subsequently gets descriptively banged by like twelve guys at once. It is pretty upsetting, but naughty enough and I learn a few things about how ladies like to get banged. So I feel ready. 

    I go back into my room, ready to consummate my love with myself. I turn the lights down low (yeah, I had a dimmer switch in my room, no big thing). I turn the ceiling fan off so it could get real, real hot in here. I sprawl lusciously across my bed, which is covered in a quilt I had inherited from my dead grandmother. Awwww, yeah. It's go time. I fumble with the radio, trying to find something real sexy, like Al Green or Barry White or Marvin Gaye. Thankfully, WGGR Oldies 103.5 obliges me, and starts playing Let's Get it On. Awwww, yeah. Let's. 

    I begin. To...do the thing. It is weird. It is a little bumpy, the process, not my...vagina. It isn't intuitive for me, it feels like those things in museums where you put your hand in the box and try to guess what texture you're feeling? Or like a haunted house where they tell you're touching guts, but it's really just a plate of spaghetti? Well, it's kind of like that. But I keep going, valiantly pawing around down there, wondering if I'm doing it right. Think sexy thoughts, sixteen-year-old Eileen tells herself. I start thinking of Terri the housewife getting gang-banged in the ski lodge, eeegh, that's a little too intense. I try thinking of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, but I just keep picturing Jamie Lee Curtis there, too, and you know what they say, three's a crowd.

    Unless...unless three's company. And then he pops into my head. The man that started it all. John Ritter. Awwww, yeah. That's the stuff. Come and knock on my door, John Ritter. I’ve been waiting for you. My seven-year-old sexual spark returns and everything starts to fall into place: the rhythm of my body matches the music, the mood is perfect, the atmosphere is perfect, John Ritter...and then...the song changes. 

    What had started off as the unequivocally sexy Let's Get it On transitions into an incredibly familiar tune. It starts with the violin, a deep rich fiddle sound setting you up for a plummeting piano beat, bringing together copious amounts of instrumentation, weaving traditional Irish tunes with modern American folk, the constantly quoted, the overly referenced, the one-hit-wonder bane of my existence by Dexy's Midnight Runners. Come on Eileen. At full blast. In all its suggestive and double entendre-d glory.

    I was almost there, Dexy's Midnight Runners. I was almost there. But I had to stop in my tracks. Because the humor and irony hit me all at once, and I had to burst out laughing, a physical sensation which, in many ways, I feel more comfortable accessing. And of course, that's my life. Of course this is how this happens. Of course that's how it goes down while I'm going downtown. Of course, this event and those before it set up a continuing routine of sexuality intertwining with hilarity, most of the time in the best way possible. And I swear what I mean, at that moment, it was almost everything. Almost. I was right there. So close.

  • My Channing Tatum Story by Adrienne Gunn

    This is a true story. 

    I spent my thirty-first birthday in Los Angeles with a group of my sorority sisters and Channing Tatum, in a bar situated perfectly in the shadow of a Channing Tatum billboard.  And when I say with Channing Tatum, I don’t mean he was at the bar we were at, but that we were with him.  

    There were five of us.  Six if you count Jenna Dewan-Tatum.  We were waiting for our table in the bar of a LA restaurant when she arrived, looking every inch the star of Witches of East End and Step Up and Channing Tatum’s wife.  She wore an enormous white fur vest, leggings, huge sunglasses, and her hair pulled back into a giant bun.  I hugged her tightly and said, “you look like a furry ballerina,” and she looked at me like she had no I idea who I was.  We’d met many times before, even way back in the early 2000’s when she was still a backup dancer and not married to Channing Tatum and I was in a phase where I would rap Salt N Pepa’s Shoop any time there was a mic and a boombox and she’d seen me do that at a gay bar during karaoke night, and trust me, that shit’s memorable so I don’t know why she always pretends she doesn’t know me.  We share a bestie, Jenna and I.   She and Channing had seen me give an amazing maid of honor speech at this bestie’s wedding and he’d said to me after, “Great speech,” and I’d said, “Thanks.”  And I’d seen them on the big screen and in the pages of US Weekly; obviously we know each other.   So I looked at her like, oh hell no, bitch this is my birthday party, and then it was time to be seated.

    Following Jenna’s lead, we ate very tiny bites of food and were quickly very drunk. The bill came and Jenna Dewan-Tatum subvertly/obviously called someone on her cellphone (her manager?  a publicist?) and a man in a suit ran over and took the bill away to make some adjustments. The end of the night was near.  But then Jenna took another call and said, “Do you guys want to meet up with Chan?”

    Fuck yes we did. 

    It was my birthday, so I rode with Jenna Dewan-Tatum in a gigantic SUV that she practically had to be hoisted into by a valet man.  I wanted to pump her for information on LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian, since she was on a short-lived show with him called The Playboy Club where she was given the kind of heavy actorial lifting of throwing tampons at the other bunnies. Jenna says that Eddie Cibrian is the stupidest man on the planet but not to quote her on that and we agree that he’s still pretty fucking hot.  

    We arrive at the bar, and as we join the crowd of people waiting to get in, Channing’s gigantic face looms over us from the 21 Jump Street billboard.  None of my friends seem to find the meta-ness of the billboard all that interesting.  There’s a razor with its head snapped off in the gutter, and I’m like, you guys, it’s all about buying things, you know?  Like this razor?  We’re shaving our legs because of this Channing Tatum billboard – and they’re like, dude, shut up.           

    Channing comes out in a trucker hat and we saunter in with him, cool as fuck. The bar is packed and I’m hyper aware, like, do these peons know this is Channing Tatum?  Are they staring at us?  Why aren’t they taking our picture?  Do they know my dress is from the Gap?  Do they see this Channing Tatum billboard right there?  People try to stand by our group, try to chat up us underlings, to get a glimpse of greatness.  Channing’s pounding beers and by the way, he’s so nice, he’s always so nice, but you can tell he’s a wild, like the kind of dude who would start doing drunken back flips or keg stands and he gets occasional warning glances from the fur vest.

    I’m talking to Chan’s producing partner and I’m like, what do I need to do to get in the biz, bro, because I could write a better movie than The Vow. And he’s like, yeah, Chan wanted a chance to work with Rachel McAdams, he thought he could learn a lot from her, and I’m like totally, totally, I could see that.

    Some guy comes up to me and is like, hey, what do you do, and I’m like, I’m a writer. And he’s like I’m a writer to, I write for The Glades.  And I’m like, what the fuck is The Glades?  And he tries to explain it but it’s loud so he googles it and apparently this is a crime show on A&E with the tagline “Sunny with a chance of Homicide,” and I’m like Oh my god, did you write that? And I’m dying, I love LA so much.

    All of a sudden the bar is closing, there’s a flurry of activity, hugs and empty promises to read spec scripts, and we’re hustled into a cab and we settle in for the drive back through the valley to West Hollywood, resting our heads on each other’s shoulders and closing our tired eyes, awash in the fading glow of celebrity.

  • One Step at a Time by Kristin Davis

    January 10th, 2010. 5:00am. Very VERY A.M. I am freezing, standing in a 17 degree parking lot. My feet are numb and I am wearing a trash bag to keep warm. I am absolutely terrified.

    I am also completely unaware that my life is about to change.

    I spent a lot of my life hating my body. At age 13, I was 5’6, 210 pounds and extremely self-conscious. I would laugh at myself before others could laugh at me. I bought this magnetic button from Spencer’s that said “Fat people are harder to kidnap” and hung it on my dad’s refrigerator with pride. Hiding underneath JNCO jeans and oversized T-shirts, I dodged fat jokes like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix.

    Just before high school, I decided I wanted to take control of my body. I wanted to lose weight, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about it. I would do ridiculous things like go up and down the stairs in my house as fast as I could. I went roller skating at full speed down my street (I’m still amazed my uncoordinated self never broke a bone…or dented a car for that matter). I did sit ups, leg lifts - anything I could do on my own.

    But there was one type of exercise I actively avoided: Running.

    I grew up in a running family. My mom has run 6 marathons, my dad 2, and my aunt has run 48 full marathons. Me? I hated running. HATED. IT. In gym class, I always finished the mile run dead last. It was embarrassing. Though I supported my family, I would never be caught dead running.

    So perhaps what happened next was inevitable.

    2002. I was a college freshman and had picked up an elliptical habit. When the campus gym was exceptionally busy I would have to use the ellipticals up on the 3rd floor beside the tiny indoor track. I would watch these runners run this track over and over and over again. It looked ridiculous, boring, difficult…

    I wondered if maybe I could do it.

    I started by trying to run a half mile without walking, then one mile, then three. To my surprise, not only could I do it, but I actually enjoyed it. I became a running addict. I worked my way up to a half marathon, and by graduation, I had lost 65 pounds. Running had become a huge part of my life. I ran every day. Sun, snow, sleet, rain. 8am or 1am. I even ran in a tropical storm once. For the record, I don’t recommend it, but I did it because running in torrential rain and wind was far better than what might happen if I didn’t.

    The thing was, though I had gone from a size 20 to a size 8, I still looked in the mirror and saw the awkward fat girl in the JNCO jeans and the oversized T-shirts. I had this overwhelming fear that if I skipped one day of running I would gain 1 pound, then 3, and suddenly I would be right back to where I started from. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. So out into the tropical storm I ran.

    In 2009 my mom and aunt convinced me to do something I thought I would never do. Together we signed up for the 2010 Disney World Marathon. I was terrified. No training plan, no coach, no idea what I was doing. I trained with only one rule: Run every single day. This, by the way, is an absolutely terrible plan for marathon training. Inevitably, I got injured. I couldn’t run more than 3 miles without knee pain and I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t let my family down, so I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t tell anyone who might tell me not to run. I self-medicated with ice and ibuprofen, shortened my mileage and hoped for the best.

    January, 2010. Orlando was unnaturally frozen. Even in January, Orlando is usually in the 50s and 60s. When I arrived it was 24 degrees. It was going to be an unexpectedly frigid run.

    At the running expo we picked up our race numbers and perused the merchandise. It only added to my feeling of anxiety. I was surrounded by people who looked fit and trim buying protein bars while discussing their goals of finishing in less than 4 hours. Meanwhile, I was the one eating a hotdog, fries and wondering if I could even make the finish line. My friend Joyce bought me this little stuffed Mickey Mouse wearing running gear and a finisher’s medal. She joked if I didn’t finish she would take the medal off him. I told her not to worry, I was going to finish.

    Secretly, I was fairly certain Mickey would lose his medal.

    The night before the race I couldn’t sleep. I kept imagining how I would feel when I couldn’t go any further. Would my family be disappointed? Would I be able to try again? 3:30am my alarm went off.

    It was time.

    I nervously ate dry cheerios, strapped on my running belt and laced my chip timer into my shoe lace. I secretly took 4 ibuprofen in a Hail Mary attempt to drug up my knee. My mom thrust a trash bag at me. I was confused. She told me to make a hole for my head and wear it, that it would keep me warm at the start line.

    So there I was. 5am. 17 degrees. Shivering in my trash bag, unable to feel my toes. Standing in the Epcot parking lot with thousands of other shivering people. My heart was already racing. Music was blaring. I could barely hear it over the screaming voice in my head telling me this is a mistake. You have no business being here. You can’t do this. You can’t do this.

    That’s when it happened. It was time for our corral to start. The announcer turned to the group and said over the blasting pop music, “Athletes, are you ready?”

    Athlete? ATHLETE? Ha! I wasn’t an athlete. I was a terrified fat girl who was about to let her family down. I was the owner of a soon-to-be de-medaled-Mickey-Mouse.

    But that word ‘athlete’ wormed its way into the back of my mind. Was I not voluntarily standing there on the starting line of a marathon? I was able to run a half marathon without walking a step. Could I be an athlete?

    I had a 26.2 miles to find out.

    Mile 1. I remember crossing the start line. So many people, like being part of a huge school of fish. I’m not really moving on my own, instead I’m floating on a strange current of people. The incredibly frigid temperatures mean my feet and fingers are now fully numb. I’m afraid of tripping, so I concentrate on every step, every movement, as we school of runners swim forward.

    Mile 4. It’s so cold, the water at the first stop is frozen. I’m warming up though – I can feel my feet again. I turn to tell my mom, but I’d lost my family in the crowd. The next 22 miles I would be on my own.

    Mile 8. Knee pain. I walk, trying not to panic. I start again slowly, refocusing on my footing: left, right, left, right.

    Mile 13. Half way. I want to stop to get my picture with Cinderella, but there’s a line and the race has a 7 hour time limit. I can’t waste time standing in line.

    I need to finish.

    Mile 15. I hit the wall. I’m extremely hungry. I didn’t know about the gels or gummies that help distance runners maintain energy. I’m still operating on the dry cereal I’d eaten about 5 hours earlier. I come to a banana station, peel the banana as fast as I can and take a huge bite.

    That remains the best banana I have ever had in my entire life.

    Mile 20. Knee pain again. I swallow the panic telling me I have a whole 6 miles to go, because I only have 6 miles to go. I stretch and check my phone. I have a text that my mom is ahead of me, but I am apparently ahead of my aunt. I put my phone away and keep going.

    I need to finish.

    Mile 22. I’m running so slowly there are people walking past me.  I would walk, but now walking hurts more than running. My knee hurts. My back hurts. Even my arms hurt. Every inch of me aches. I had not done nearly enough training. My body wasn’t ready for this.

    Mile 25. I’m back in Epcot. I can’t think straight. I’m practically crawling through the different countries. I hear a stranger say, “Hey, you!” He’s looking straight at me. “See that tree?” He points slightly ahead of me. “Yeah,” I say. He looks at me intensely and says, “The finish line is a half-mile from that tree.” I turn to him and smile for the first time that day. “Thank you.”

    I don’t remember that last half mile. That whole part of the run is a blur of sheer determination. I do, however, remember finishing. Letting my feet stop opened the flood gates to an overwhelming sense of shock and relief. I had no energy left to keep my tears in check, so I was the one ugly crying as a random volunteer said congratulations and hung a shiny gold Mickey finishers’ medal around my neck. It was over. I had done it. I had finished.

    My official time was 5 hours 51 minutes and 55 seconds. There’s a joke in the running community that you can learn everything you need to know about yourself in 26.2 miles. I’ve run 4 marathons now and am currently training for two more (I’ve even spent an incredibly stupid amount of money to run what will be my 6th marathon in Indiana of all places). Each one of these runs has taught me something different, but that first race was special. January 10th, 2010 was a rite of passage. It was a painful, difficult and a very personal journey that changed how I viewed myself. I started that race an outsider. A fat kid pretending to be a runner. In the following nearly 6 hours, I proved to myself that simply wasn’t true. It changed me, from the inside out. When I crossed the finish line, everything was different. I was a marathoner. I was a runner.

    I was an athlete.

  • This Cannot Be Happening Now by Elise Mayfield

    It was here. As I sat on the toilet and stared at the redish-brownish stain on my pure white undies, all I could think was, “No. Not now. This can’t be happening now.”

    The summer between 6th and 7th grade was going really well. I mean, like really, really well. I had been cast in a regional theater production of The Wizard of Oz that was performing at the historic Alabama Theater, I had a crush on a boy in the play who wore Paul Frank Monkey shirts and introduced me to Ben Folds Five, and for the first and only time in my whole life, I was too tall to be a munchkin.  I was the princess of all 12 year olds.

    But, one hot August night, things changed. I was sleeping soundly when my Dad woke me. He said simply but firmly, “Elise, wake up. Mama is sick and we have to go to the hospital.” I can still see his face standing at the end of the bed. I knew that something was very wrong. I got up in my matching pajama set and slowly headed down the stairs. It felt like a horror movie. The house was dark and still with night and while the images from this event are seared into my brain, I can’t remember a single sound. It’s like the air had been sucked out of my whole world. I placed one tentative foot onto the black and white kitchen tile and looked around like someone might jump out at me. The first thing I noticed was that the freezer door was wide open. I tip-toed over to the freezer and closed the door and that’s when I noticed the first one. There was a puddle of clear fluid on the floor. Further towards the dining room there was another one, and then another.  I followed them through our dining room into the living room like a macabre scavenger hunt until I met my father at the front door, where the ambulance lights bounced off of his glasses. Red, blue, red, blue.  My mother was strapped to a gurney rolling down our front sidewalk, paramedics streaming around her. I stood there frozen with my Dad at the front door, but as soon as the doors of the ambulance opened, I burst into action. I ran after them, trying to get a look at my Mom. They closed the doors behind her, but through the ambulance window, we locked eyes. Time stood still again. And she waved. Years later, she later told me it was the single hardest thing she’s ever done in her entire life. She waved at me so she could tell me that it was going to be okay or goodbye. She didn’t know which one it was going to be, but she knew she needed to wave.

    My mother is a medical miracle. At 42, she suffered from both a cardiac arrest and congenital heart failure and she survived. Thank God.

    The next day, I went back to rehearsal for the play. I remember someone asked me how my weekend was, and I said “My mom had a heart attack last night.” And, they said, “Oh.” And, then we went and practiced our choreography. What else were we supposed to do?

     Later that night, my dad brought me to the ICU to see Mom. He tried to warn me that she was hooked up to machines and tubes, but nothing can really prepare you for the sight of just how many tubes are keeping your mother alive. She was asleep when I walked in, but she woke up when I held her hand. Her eyes were so blue right then. So blue and so alive. She had a breathing tube in and she couldn’t speak, so for a few days, she wrote on a little dry erase board when I’d come visit. I’m sure it was exhausting for her, but I remember it being a very fun game. “This one’s taking a long time! I wonder what the question is?” The day the breathing tube was removed was a really good day. The first thing she said was, “ I want a real thing Coca-Cola and then I want to brush my teeth.” I laid in her hospital bed with her that night and we watched a movie as a family. I can’t remember what the movie was. Maybe it was Apollo 13? I don’t know. I was just really happy that we were watching it together.

    And, then, disaster struck.

    After our awesome movie night, Dad and I came home and I ran upstairs to my bathroom. And, there it was. The horrific evidence of my womanhood.

    Why now? Why, God, why? My mom is in the hospital right now! She’s not here to help me figure this out! Please don’t make me tell MY DAD!  

    I tried to act casual. I walked down the stairs to see Dad staring blindly at the TV. “Dad, uh, could I use the phone to call Mom? I…ugh…I forgot to tell her something.” “Sure, baby,” he said. I ran into their room to use the phone instead of using the one in the kitchen in front of him. The phone rang and rang, but eventually she answered. “Momma?” “What, baby?” “Momma. I think I started my period.”

    “Oh, baby.”

    “Ok, there are some maxi pads underneath my sink. They have yellow wrappers. Go get a few and read the instructions on the bag. It’s gonna be okay. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Can you hand the phone to Daddy?”

    “Mom, no. Please don’t tell him.”

    “Elise, I have to tell him.”

    I slowly walked back into the kitchen, picked up the receiver, and handed it to him. “Mom needs to talk to you.” He arched an eyebrow, but took the phone. With a maxi pad hidden in my hand, I watched as my Dad took the news in stride. The color drained from his face.  He said, “Oh.” I ran upstairs to my room and didn’t come down the rest of the night.

    The next day every fucking body knew that I was a woman now. Not only did my Dad know that I’d started my period, but from her hospital bed, my Mom called both of my godmothers and my grandmothers and they were all calling to ask me if I understood what was going on and if they could help. I was mortified. I’d always imagined that this was something that daughters talked to their mothers about, not with their entire extended family. I went to the pharmacy with Godmother Laurie to get my own supplies. I think I blushed for an entire week.

    A month or so later, my mom came home from the hospital. I decorated her walker, cane, and chair with tin foil and made her a crown so that she could be a queen that she is. The next day was opening night of my play. She told her doctors that she had to be there, and, damnit, she was. I peeked through the curtain during pre-show and watched her slowly wheel her way to her seat, and I was so proud. 

    At curtain call, she waved at me. 

  • Marjoram by Katie Liesener



    As a teenager, I was a pathetically good kid. I got straight As and internalized my parents’ every warning about illegal activity. This left me woefully oblivious to mainstream teenage culture.

    It was, for example, only through careful observation that I noticed some of the cool kids at school all had the same hand-drawn leaf on their notebooks.

    It wasn’t a three-leaf clover – so not an Irish thing. Could be a maple leaf, but…Canadian pride? That’s not a thing. The leaf did have three fronds, sort of like poison ivy. Maybe it was a gang symbol! For the Poison Ivies.

    Then one day, I heard a kid refer to the leaf as marijuana.

    For a moment, I thought I’d heard wrong.

    You have to keep in mind, I’d only recently pieced together that marijuana was the same thing as pot. And now I was learning that marijuana/pot was a plant!?!

    This flew in the face of everything I knew about drugs. My D.A.R.E. education had intimated a dark world of needles and crystals and powders. In a role-playing exercise, our D.A.R.E officer had once pretended to offer us marijuana using a jagged piece of chalk, which we practiced refusing.

    But now, come to find out, marijuana was just a plant! I realized we might as well have practiced resisting the classroom’s potted begonia.

    Having decoded the mystery leaf that day at school, I returned home to find that only my sister Mindy was there. Mom had recently taken a job because she decided we were finally old enough – at 16 and 14 – to be trusted home alone.

    I went to my bedroom pondering the day’s new knowledge – that marijuana was a plant, just like tobacco was a plant – when I happened to glance up at the cottonwoods and elm trees outside my bedroom window. All these leaves fluttering in the sunlight.

    I thought: “My god, this is all smokable!”

    Maybe mankind had stopped too soon after tobacco and marijuana! Who knew what trippy botanicals had yet to be discovered?

    Those winking leaves outside my window stirred something inside of me. An appetite for rebellion. I, too, wanted to taste a dark side that was still technically legal.

    Now I knew from biology that I wouldn’t be able to smoke any of these vibrant outdoor leaves. They would have too much water. I could smoke dry leaves, of course, but it’s not like we had dry leaves sitting around the house.

    Then I remembered the dry leaves sitting all around the house. Literally on every end table. Little pots of potpourri. Or, as I was already coming to think of it, “pot.”

    I went to the living room where Mindy was watching TV and did a slow walk-by of the couch end table. I moseyed back and sat on the end of the couch, gauging the scented roughage. I lifted the heart-shaped earthenware pot to my lap, pinched the contents, tested them with my nose.

    Mindy looked at me.

    “What are you doing?”

    “What are you doing?”

    “Watching Full House.”

    “Why?”

    “Cause.”

    “Okay then.”              

    I got up and meandered into the kitchen. Potpourri was a bust. That apple cinnamon was harsh. And Mom would notice a decline in potpourri levels.

    I leaned back against the kitchen counter, feeling defeated in my one attempt at rebellion, figuring I might as well get started on homework, when I remembered the other trove of dead leaves in our house.

    I climbed up on the kitchen counter and opened the spice cabinet.

    Right away, I saw basil and oregano, but I didn’t feel like I could truly experiment with anything I’d seen on spaghetti. So I delved deeper, toward the back of the cabinet where the spices grew dustier and more obscure. I started pulling out crazy stuff. Celery salt? Dill seed? It was like a medieval apothecary. Finally, in the very back, I found the perfect substance. It was green, it was lush, it was called “mar-jo-ram.”

    It sounded major.

    In preparation for smoking the marjoram, I filled a shallow dish with water. (I was not so rebellious as to flout fire safety.) I then needed to transport all this paraphernalia back to my bedroom, but Mindy was still in the living room, which I would need to pass through. Mindy could not be trusted. She was kind of lame. So I stuck the marjoram in the waistband of my pants and palmed the bowl of water, nice and casual.

    She noticed me as I walked past with the water dish.

    “What are you doing?”

    “I’m thirsty, ok? God.”

    I delivered the goods safely to my room and closed the door. Whew. I set down the water, popped the marjoram out of my pants, and knelt on my bedroom carpeting. I tore a sheet from my history notebook. Opened the marjoram and took a whiff. Earthy. Potent. I shook it out onto paper. Pinched it in a line.

    Then I started to roll the notebook paper. But notebook paper is just designed to do one thing really well and that’s to stay flat. So the rolling turned to folding, and at the end, my joint resembled a tiny envelope of spice.

    Now it was time to light up. But, of course, good kids don’t have lighters. I had to improvise. I emerged from my room, snuck down to the basement, and retrieved the utility lighter for the family fireplace. One of those things with a long snout and a thumb trigger at the base, so you can ignite a family fire from perfect safety.

    Now, with the final piece in place, I was ready to do this. To smoke my first joint. I stood and aimed the joint end toward my open bedroom window. A salute to the wild green unknown. And insurance that the smoke would ventilate. 

    I pressed the lighter button. A flame sprang to life and after careful alignment, found the pinpoint end of my joint. The flame caught the tip and raced the notebook paper toward my face. I got two good hits. All smoke. *Hack, hack* And threw the flaming joint into dish of water. *Tsssss*

    I almost burned the house down! My heart was racing. My hands were shaking. I thought, “Man, that marjoram is some hard shit.” 

  • Honey In The Horn by Eileen Dougharty

    Do you remember the first time that you were THE SHIT? I do. Let’s rewind to 1973. I am seven years old and I’m pretty hip to the fact that I am not like the other kids in Mrs. Morgan’s second grade class. I’m tall and gangly and have a bit of a squirrelly sulk most of the time, quite possibly from concentrating super hard on not being a weirdo. I am on a quest to fly under the radar, because being plain certainly beats being a freak. The popular kids all have outfits befitting their colorful personalities; they are rockin’ fun bell bottoms and tie dye and Schoolhouse Rock t-shirts. I am outfitted head to toe in basic boring, always trying to pull my pants down on my hips so I won’t get picked on for wearing floods.

    Despite my dorky despair, I truly love going to school. Mrs. Morgan has short salt and pepper hair that’s permed into a matronly halo and she wears polyester pants with “comfort stretch” waistbands. She smells vaguely of baked goods and everything about her just screams MOM to me. And she is a mom to an eleven year old son named Aaron, who apparently can do no wrong. She adorns her desk with pictures of him and he looks just like a junior version of all the heartthrobs we’re watching on TV…David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, Randy Mantooth, the hot paramedic on Emergency. All dark hair and dreamy eyes. Mrs. Morgan talks about Aaron constantly. Aaron is the goalie on the school soccer team. Aaron plays the trumpet. Aaron picked her flowers, just because. Mrs. Morgan is in stark contrast to my own mother, who is also a teacher, but definitely doesn’t rock the maternal vibe. My mother is a platinum blonde who wears lots of jewelry and false eyelashes and she’s more fashion plate than teacher, plus she’s just a substitute teacher anyway.She spends most of her time with my new stepfather, Ray, fixing him drinks and watching him watch sports, leaving me to amuse myself with the TV and the radio and waiting for book day.

    Book day is the best day ever at school. There’s a catalog you take home with you that has all the books you can order. You peruse it repeatedly and fill out the order form and get a check from your parents and a few weeks later, VOILA, the books are delivered and you are the proud owner of a big stack of stories you can use to escape reality. Some kids don’t give a rat’s ass about book day, but the order form, the choosing, the anticipation, the books, the escaping all brings a smile to my plain, smirky face. I am thrilled to make my selections, stuff like Charlotte’s Web, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Nancy Drew mysteries and Laura Ingalls Wilder for days. I carefully check the boxes, add up the total and ask my mom for a check to take to school. When I turn it in, Mrs. Morgan double checks the math and says, “Eileen, you chose a lot of really great books. I bet you’re excited to get reading!” Indeed, I am. Mrs. Morgan totally gets me.

    Before the books are delivered, I need to survive Valentine’s Day. Already a blooming pessimist, I am seriously dreading the day of hearts. We all make construction paper envelopes that will hang on the sides of our desks to collect the valentines that we will distribute to our friends while we enjoy punch and cookies. Blech. Not sure who made up this stupid ritual, but I know they must have been popular. It’s no big deal, I tell myself. Even if I don’t get any valentines, it’s only one day and then I can return to being invisible.

    The weekend before Valentine’s Day involves some sort of family house cleaning project. My parents are giving stuff to charity to make room for a refrigerator downstairs that will just contain beer and soda. The second dedicated beverage fridge will definitely be a sign that we have arrived as a family. I’m in the garage culling through the stuff my stepfather has deemed to be no longer of interest when I find a giant pile of records. Cool. When I’m not reading I’m parked in front of the radio waiting them to play something smooth like “Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston, or “Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren, or Brandy "You’re A Fine Girl” by Looking Glass. Her eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.

    Ray had recently recorded his vinyl collection onto cassette tapes, so all his albums hit the junk pile. I’m not too optimistic about finding treasure as I flip through his castoffs, but visually it’s a fun waste of time. The Ray Coniff Orchestra covers all have young, pretty ladies on the front, which makes no sense to me as I’d heard some of it in the family car and it’s totally old guy elevator music. Sergio Mendes appears to be a spicy character, and it’s cool that the ladies on the covers of his records are in the band. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew packs so much bad assery that it instantly scares the living shit out of me.

    I’m about to give up when I find a few with a bearded guy on the cover playing the trumpet, a guy named Al Hirt. HONEY IN THE HORN, one cover boldly proclaims. I’m instantly attracted as it just sounds dirty. BEAUTY AND THE BEARD has a picture of Al with Ann Margaret, with her looking radiant and him looking super creepy.

    I rifle through the stack and pull out all the Al Hirt records I can find and head inside to consult with Ray. He’s drinking a beer and watching baseball and seems vaguely annoyed when I want his attention. He keeps his eyes on the Dodger game and asks, “What’s up?”

    I point to Al’s face playing the trumpet. “Is this guy any good?”

    “Sure. He’s no Herb Alpert, but as far as trumpet players go, he’s pretty talented.”

    I wave the records towards his face that’s still transfixed on the game. “Can I take these? If you’re just giving them away anyway?”

    “Sure, kid. Suit yourself.” I walk away with the records under my arm triumphantly as the Dodgers score and Ray pops another beer.

    I put the records in a brown paper shopping bag and take them to school on Monday morning. I show up early so no other kids will be around. I knock on Mrs. Morgan’s door as she’s at her desk working on lesson plans.

    She greets me with a big grin and says, “Good morning! What can I do for you, Eileen?”

    I hand her the bag and say, “I thought that Aaron might like these records since he plays the trumpet and all. I don’t know that much about that kind of music but I hear this guy is pretty good.”

    Mrs. Morgan places the bag on her desk and continues smiling.

    “Well, I’m sure he will enjoy them. That was really nice of you to think about my son.”

    “Oh, it’s no big deal. We were giving them away anyway,” I reply.

    I am torn between wanting to stay and talk to her for the rest of my life and a very strong urge to run away as fast as my Keds can take me. I don’t know how to explain to her that I just want to thank her for being so nice to me, but not in a suck up apple polishing teacher’s pet kind of a way. My head is filled with fantasies of what her kitchen might be like. It’s probably full of really cool food like fondue and Hamburger Helper and she might even make Jiffy Pop and a pitcher of Tang for when you watch TV. Swoon.

    February 14th, let's get this day done already. I go to class bearing the valentines my mom and I bought at the drugstore that I’d carefully filled out for my friends. Some kids have really flashy handmade ones, some kids can’t afford them at all or maybe their parents just forgot. Either way, I am squarely in the middle, not calling attention to myself. As we start eating cookies and drinking punch and circulating our corny tokens of adoration around the room and I get a few in my envelope, I think, perhaps I was all keyed up about this for no reason. Even plain, nerdy book girls get valentines, not from boys, like the popular girls who play sports and music, but that’s okay.

    Then the door to the classroom opens and there he is. AARON. In real life, he’s even cuter than in the pictures on his mom’s desk. He’s wearing his soccer jersey and shorts and he is four foot something of pure adorable, feathered hair and dark eyed perfection standing there before us. Everyone in the class stops and stares as he walks in with a giant heart shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates under his arm, assumedly to give to his amazing mom. He greets her at her desk and she points into the classroom. AT ME. Aaron walks over and hands me the chocolates and I am pretty sure I have been magically transported to some sort of bizarre fantasy dream world.

    He smiles and says, “Hey, my mom gave me those records you gave her. I gave them a listen, he plays pretty good. So, hey, yeah, thanks, enjoy your Valentine’s day.”

    I just stare as the chocolate bearing dreamboat situation has rendered me mute and unable to move, in fear that it all might disappear. He walks back towards his mom, who nods and smiles, as he waves to the class and heads off to soccer practice. I feel everyone’s eyes on me as I lift the heart shaped lid off the box, not looking at the map on top that says which kind of candy is in which spot. I pick up the plainest looking one and put it in my mouth, savoring the sweetness of it all.

  • Is Anyone In Charge?? by Jeremy Owens

    Isn’t anyone in charge? It certainly doesn’t feel like it where Beyonce is concerned. The recent suddenly heavily publicized upcoming “big announcement” on Good Morning America from one Mrs. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter had the Beyhive all verklempt. “Beyoncé has something amazing she wants you to know,” the dramatic promo promised. “So what is it? You’re gonna love it. Find out tomorrow on Good Morning America.”

    Millions of Americans vowing to not be the last to learn of a new album, divorce, or baby announcement stayed up all night staring at Twitter and iTunes. When the big news finally arrived at 8am it was so thoroughly thrilling that Beyoncé couldn’t even bother to show up to deliver it herself. Instead, she sent a highly produced video that was clearly shot atop whatever bourgey castle she and Jay-Z are currently calling home in New York City, or Jupiter or wherever the hell millionaire singer/songwriter/actress/dancer/Instagram terrorists are living these days.

    So what what was it? What was the big announcement that needed a 12-hour trigger warning? What was the breaking news bulletin that could only be delivered on the one morning news show that Americans are most likely to throat punch? Brace yourselves. Bey loves cauliflower steak and raw walnut tacos, like…on the regular. Yeah, you heard me; WALNUT TACOS; that’s right our girl is a vegan this week. No, that’s not fair; we’re supposed to say, “She prefers a plant-based diet.” We can’t say vegan because the word “vegan” is off brand. It sounds scary, unattainable and completely insane, which frankly is exactly how I like my pop-stars.

    This is an amazing announcement? This is what you dragged us to our televisions to witness at 8am? No. Don’t flaunt your disgusting lifestyle choices at us before we’ve had a chance to finish our coffee and morning Jazzercise. Leave us out of it. Besides, exactly how much effort does it take to send your chef an email and say, “Hey, girl, stop cooking meat and don’t use any cheese, because I’ve lost my damned mind and become a vegan.” That message isn’t necessary of course, since Beyoncé doesn’t make any private choices and actually says that, “It’s important for you to know that I am not a vegan. I don’t really cook, but I am a really good taste tester.”  Well, I guess this explains that Nicki Minaj video.

    Confused?

    Don’t be. While Monday morning’s announcement was designed to look like a heartfelt confessional detailing the tribulations of cramming yourself into a see-through mesh gown for all the world to see; it’s really about Bey & Jay’s desperate attempt to become the next set of Oprah Winfreys.

    It isn’t going so well. Beyoncé’s fashion-line House of Dereon is defunct and Jay Z has recently taken to Twitter to defend his super overpriced and lousy music streaming service called Tidal. These two are determined to sell us anything that isn’t another Beyoncé album and none of us are paying any attention. Apparently their latest brilliant money making scheme is to take over our food.

    To make matters more pathetic Monday’s announcement isn’t the first (or even second) time our Queen has declared that she’s pretending to go vegan. Beginning in December 2013 the Carters took to social media (he to his weird and complicated Life & Times blog, then she to Instagram) to announce they would start a 22-day vegan challenge. Coincidentally, this was just days after the couple became partners in a vegan food company founded by their trainer, and life coach Marco Borges.

    Yeah, LIFE COACH, let that sink in. She’s got as many hours in the day as we do, but old girl has someone on staff to scream affirmations in her face when times get hard. Like when she realizes that there isn’t much to live for once you’ve stopped eating cheese.

    This past February was the Carter’s second attempt at making veganism sound sexy. They launched 22 Days Nutrition, a vegan meal delivery service, which costs about $600 for the full 22 day program. So they’ve basically decided that the best way to get us to throw our dollars at them is by selling us expensive salad and over-priced and beautifully packaged carrot farts. Not to worry though, if you’re too poor to buy for the food there’s a $35 cookbook with no pictures of Beyonce and a lot of weird math. The name for their company comes from the idea that it takes 21 days to make a habit, so by day 22, if you haven’t lit yourself on fire and jumped off a cliff, you’re well on your way.

    The company is also talking juices – AND – for those of us without a chef who can pop over to Japan to brush up on sauce-making techniques there are plans for grab-and-go meals in supermarkets. Oh, YAY! The revolution is coming and we’re apparently all about to turn into Gwyneth Paltrow-zombies.

    “I have curves,” Beyonce said Monday morning, “I’m proud of my curves. Finding something that actually works, that actually keeps the weight off has been difficult for me. This is something I have to share with everyone.”

    Beyonce! What does that even mean?

    Again, I ask, is anyone in charge?

    How about you just stick to writing songs about sex in a bathtub and call it a day. We don’t want to eat your food. We don’t want your music streaming service and we don’t want your cheap-ass jeans and shiny pirate shirts. Can I not just be unhealthy and peacefully shame-eat Popeyes in my car?  

    It’s too bad we’re all crazy in love. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a cookbook to buy before the Beygency carts me away. Pretty hurts. Indeed it does my friends. Indeed. It. Does.

  • Jewish Christmas Trees by Jennie Ellman

    Every winter, my family and I would kick off the holiday season and go to the used truck lot where half of the glistening, snowy space had been dedicated to Christmas trees.  After a tree was picked out, my dad would tie the tree to the roof of the car while my grandfather - who I call papa - would give the kids candy canes.  You would have thought that we lived in a snow globe.

    Oh, if only that were the true story.  That’s all I ever wanted growing up, was to bring home my own Christmas tree.  But, this is the real story. 

    My family is Jewish – and I’ve never had a Christmas tree. My papa had a used truck lot on the south side of Chicago and every year he would convert half of his lot to selling Christmas trees.  Many Sundays, my parents would dress my younger brothers and me up in layers upon layers and we would go to the truck lot and we would keep my grandma company in the office while my dad helped my papa sell.  And my first image was true.  After the family picked out THEIR Christmas tree, my dad would tie the tree to the roof of THEIR car and my papa would hand THOSE children candy canes.  The family would drive off leaving me in the fog of the car’s exhaust with the tree on the roof to only what I could assume would be to a house that smelled like peppermint with heaps of hot chocolate while the entire family would hang ornaments with chestnuts roasting over an open fire and “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot like Christmas” would play over the stereo.  Even Jimmy Stewart and Patty Duke would be jealous. 

    But, in my reality, my grandma sat in the office with her cardboard cigar box that was taped up with a ton of masking tape with crisp $5 bills and $10 bills in a pile held together by a rubber band.  My papa would leave out his Playboys because he thought it was hilarious that my brothers – probably 4 and 6 at the time would go through them.  We would spend a lot of time in that office in the winter laughing and the adults would talk about some of the strange clientele that would come through and what relationships – kosher or not kosher – they may have had with each other.

    But all I wanted was a Christmas tree.  I would walk through the lot, through the Balsams Firs and the Douglas Firs, the Pines and the Spruce trees.   I would pick out my ideal tree.  The one shaped most like a pyramid with a full bottom and a pointy top.  The ones that the needles smelled most like the tree-scented-car-air-fresheners.  I could never decide how I would decorate my Christmas tree.  Would I do a tree of all sentimental ornaments that would have my first handprint and an ornament from my trip to Disney World?  Would it be all white lights or colored lights or medium light bulbs or small light bulbs? Would they blink to make it look like it was twinkling? 

    Soon enough, I decided that I wouldn’t have one Christmas tree, I would have a Christmas tree in every room of the house.  One would be all leopard. One would look like a disco ball, one would be all white with pearls and crystal. I decided that there wasn’t a Christmas tree as beautiful as what mine would have been.  Cars would be lining up outside of my house to take pictures of all the trees in all my windows.  My Christmas trees, oh Christmas trees, would bring joy to everyone, especially me. 

    I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed a Christmas tree. Especially because we had so many at our disposal.  I would have taken the runt of the lot, too.  The Charlie Brown tree of the place.  My parents would simply say that “We’re Jewish and Jews don’t have Christmas trees” and that would be the answer.  There was no arguing it. 

    However, as I got older, again meaning 10 or 11, I would love to try to help sell Christmas trees.  By this time, I figured that if I wasn’t going to get my own Christmas tree, I was going to match the family with the perfect Christmas tree that worked for them.  I was going to be the best Christmas tree consultant that there ever was.  But at a good price, just for you, obviously.  There was a brown spot of needles?  Or a bare spot? Have that side face the walls and I can knock the price down for you a couple bucks.  But look at the fullness of the branches, that’s prime ornament real estate.  The top is so high and pointy, it would don that big star or angel perfectly.  I became the Christmas tree maven, wheeling and dealing and negotiating a good price. 

    Okay, that didn’t really happen either. What happened was, I would walk up to the customer, the tag on the tree would say $35.  The customer would ask me if they could knock it down to $25. I would ask my papa if $25 was okay, he said ask for $30, I’d go back to the customer and say $30 and I would take the cash back to my papa – and, let’s be real, that probably happened a total of 4 times – but the passion and drive to find that Christmas tree a good home was always burning inside of me. 

    My papa got a big kick out of this, but truthfully, he got a kick out of everything I did.  We loved each other so much. His name for me was Boobah that he started calling me from the day I was born.  It’s Yiddish for “Doll”.  He and my grandma are the only two that have ever called me that or are allowed to and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

    My papa had a commanding presence.  My mom’s friends always comment on his glamorous looks, his green eyes, and his charm.  He had many sayings that we refer to as “Irv-isms” and he described everything as “beautiful” such as “You got an A on the test? That’s beautiful”.  “Thank you for the glass of water. It’s beautiful”. Or when I would drive “That was a beautiful right turn.”

    He had a 1929 Model A Ford that he kept in our garage in the summers and we would take out on the weekends.  He recovered the seats in leopard print and I am convinced that’s why I love leopard so much because some of my favorite memories of him was when he would have his 9 grandchildren pile into this 4 seater to go pick up dinner.  The car probably couldn’t exceed 25 miles per hour but people would wave to us because we were our own parade and my papa would honk the horn that made an A-OO-GA sound. 

    He would call me every year on the first day of school to sing “School Days” and his kisses were both scratchy and wet.  He only called my Grandma “Babe” and he was a WW2 vet getting drafted on his 18th birthday and winning many medals but was never able to talk about his experiences without tearing up. 

    My papa liked to bend the rules.  He started teaching me to drive when I was in junior high.  By the time I did get my license, I would help him move trucks to different lots that he had after school. Much of my relationship with my papa was on Sundays at the dinner table or in his passenger seat.  He was most proud of his family and of his trucks and I was lucky to have been strongly connected to him on both levels.  When you were one of my papa’s, you were well loved and protected.  He eventually gave up on the Christmas trees by the time I got to high school when he retired and began wintering in Florida with the rest of the Jews.  This April marked ten years since he died, when I was 20, and I will always miss him. 

    So now, every November, when I walk by Christmas tree lots, whether those of the truck lot kind or of the parking lot variety, I look at the trees, the stringed lights that hang above the fence, the concrete blocks that hold the trees in place, smile and think to myself, I may not have gotten the traditional Christmas tree memories but I do have MY Christmas tree memories with MY papa, which I wouldn’t want to trade and I whisper under my breath “I’ll give you a good price, just for you, obviously”. 

  • Salty and Gross and Good by Ruth McCormack

    Before I left for Montana, my friends had teased me about meeting a mountain man. “You’re going to shack up with a beardy dude in a flannel and never come home.”

    “Yeah, you better hope his cabin has Netflix.”

    I’m not going to go off the grid or live off the land or anything; I know I could survive without fizzy water but that’s not a life I want to live. I will confess, though, I find that mountain-man aesthetic attractive. There was nothing going on, dude-wise, on the home front. I was technically internet dating, but the whole performance of being a cool girl loves to dance like no one’s watching and eats cheeseburgers but also “takes care of herself” aka “is skinny,” well, it’s exhausting. Putting yourself out there can leave even the most laid-back among us feeling inadequate. So I was open to this mountain man idea.

    Not to make it about feminism, but did you really think I wasn’t going to make it about feminism? It’s just, when you’re supposed to Have It All, where It All is a high-powered career and well-behaved children and a husband who looks like Idris Elba and also does laundry, and I mean really does it without putting your bras in the dryer, when you are supposed to have it all and what you have is none of it, what you have is an investment vibrator and the sickening realization that you are almost thirty and there are four dollars in your checking account, again, well, you can see how I felt a little … lacking. And don't get me wrong, I know Having it All is kind of a bullshit concept, I don't even want It All, but everyone around me seems to suddenly have it all, or some of it, and I'm here with my four dollars and my legs that aren't quite fat but aren't quite not because I actually do eat a lot of cheeseburgers, and, well, I decided to climb a mountain. I loaded up my bike with my tent and sleeping bag and a special bear-proof Tupperware full of food for the road, and boarded the Amtrak headed for Glacier National Park.   

    Now, I don’t usually think about food as fuel to, like, power my body unless I’m hung over, but then I’m like a goddamn nutritionist: caffeine for the headache, carbs to soak up the extra booze, fat to soothe my tummy. I gotta find something salty and greasy and good, something chemically engineered for optimal deliciousness, because anything less will definitely make me vomit. Hung-over me is a scientist and she’s going to McDonald’s.

    On a bike trip food is literally fuel, but I needed more or less the same things I need when I’m hung over: sugar for quick energy, fat for the long haul, protein so I could spend my vacation time doing a week of leg workouts, and salt, because I was going to get real sweaty.

    I filled my bear can with bagels and peanut butter and honey. I made tuna salad right in the pouch with a mayonnaise packet I liberated from my office cafeteria. I made ramen in a tiny stove, and I know you think ramen is something for only graduate students to eat, but I am here to tell you it is so salty and carb-y and good, even if a bug falls in it, which is what happened to my ramen in Montana.

    I took the train to Whitefish and I pedaled toward the park. Twenty miles out of town I got a little lost on a road that followed a perfect turquoise river and I stopped at the top of a hill to assess my situation. I had taken a wrong turn and gone pretty far in the wrong direction, but I was ok. I had everything I needed strapped to my bike. At home I stressed about having it all, but in Montana I had enough. I rode up and over mountains. My legs were strong and they were churning up the road, and I know it’s annoying when people say this about travel, but I got to the top of the world on my bike and that really did change a lot of things for me.

    On the other side of the mountains I took myself out for lunch. I had been looking forward to a cheeseburger, but after days of quinoa and noodles and squishy room-temperature string cheese, I missed vegetables. I was the dirtiest person in the restaurant, and I ordered a beer and a lemonade and a water and a salad, and the server tried to walk away, but I said “Can I have some French fries please and is there a dessert menu?” You know, fuel.

    On my last night in the park I went to a ranger program with my campsite neighbor, and I was trying to stay up until 10 to see another ranger program about stars. Usually it’s easy enough for me to stay up until 1 or so, to see another episode of Arrested Development I’ve already seen 100 times, but riding bikes is hard, and I had been falling asleep most nights around 7. My campsite neighbor was already out. I was yawning and writing postcards and thinking about hiking to the camp store for a diet coke when a dude pedaled up to my campsite.

    “Hey, this campground is full. Is it ok I stay here?” Generally, if a stranger approaches me and wants to just like, sleep on the floor in my apartment, no, that’s not happening. But our national parks are for everyone, and the campsite was huge, and if things got out of hand I could wake up that neighbor. I told him he could stay. I know that sounds like the beginning of a porn, but things are different in the parks. People just talk to each other. And I was my new, adequate, relaxed mountain self.

    I didn’t see Max as mountain man when he rolled up to camp. He had blond curly hair and no beard and these weird round glasses that were, like, so fucking hip. He took off his jersey and unzipped his bibs to the waist. I looked very hard at my postcards to give him some privacy. I’m not some perv who creeps on strangers when they’re trying to cool off. I’m just a cool girl who thinks it’s totally normal when some guy shows up with a whole abs and chest situation. That sort of thing happens to me all the time.

    “Do you like beer?” he asked, and you guys, I do like beer. He pulled out a cold six-pack of Hamm’s and started making his dinner. I didn’t notice right away, because we were talking about his alcohol stove, but his dinner was a box of mac and cheese mixed with a can of sardines. And look, I’m a single lady; I eat some pretty horrifying things when no one’s around, but this was too much. We all watch Chopped and you shouldn’t be serving fish with cheese. But I had ridden so many miles, and I had had two beers, so I tried it, and you guys, and it was so salty, and fatty, and good.

    By the third Hamm’s the stars were out but I had missed the ranger program. We were talking about Utah and bikes, and I noticed that Max hadn’t pitched his tent, and I thought that was kind of interesting. I also noticed that his legs looked the way legs look when you’ve been doing nothing but riding bikes for six weeks, and I thought that was pretty interesting too.

    I was feeling all adequate and powerful and interesting, but I was also very conscious of the fact that I hadn’t showered in, well, a while. My sweet rack, normally one of my better assets, was covered in five days of sports-bra boob sweat. I was pretty gross, but I was happy, and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on the sexual conquest of a lumberjack. Max wasn’t my mountain man. He was part of an anarchist bike collective in Salt Lake City. He worked at American Apparel, for Christ’s sake. We weren’t going to live happily ever after in a log cabin. I didn’t know how to make anything happen anyway, so I took the beer cans to the trash, put my stuff in the bear box, and went to bed.

    Five minutes later, from outside, I heard, “Hey Ruth? Are you awake? I haven’t put up my tent yet, and, um…”

    I laughed and unzipped the door. “Yeah, come on in,” I said, and when I kissed him I could taste the sweat on his skin, and it was salty, and gross, and good.

  • Reflection by Kris Vire and Kelly Loris

    This is a two parter. First we hear from Kris and then Kelly. . .


    KRIS:

    The straw that broke the camel’s back was Marky Mark.


    I was 14 years old in 1992. The governor of my home state, Bill Clinton, had thrown his hat into the ring to run for president.
    Roseanne was dominating the ground on primetime TV, while Seinfeld was breaking through with a meta story about Jerry and George pitching a Seinfeld-esque sitcom to NBC. Meanwhile, at noon central time Monday through Friday on All My Children, Erica Kane was being romanced by Dimitri Marick while dealing with her mother Mona’s diagnosis with cancer. And Marky Mark, the man we now know as Mark Wahlberg, was an ubiquitous image: shirtless, muscle-bound, jeans around his ankles and grabbing his Calvin Klein–clad crotch: in the video for the previous year’s hit song “Good Vibrations,” with his group “The Funky Bunch,” on TV at basketball games, and on Calvin Klein billboards.


    I had felt tremors of my impending homosexuality before Marky Mark. I remember sitting Indian-style (because that’s what we called it back then) on the floor at school next to my friend Kyle in 5th grade and suddenly thinking how nice it might be to kiss him. My previously alluded to obsession with
    All My Children. For my 12th birthday, I begged for tickets to the New Kids on the Block concert at the Washington County Fairgrounds, featuring Marky Mark’s older brother Donnie Wahlberg—although come on, Joey MacIntyre was my favorite.


    But it was Mark Wahlberg and his tighty whities that broke the dam. His Calvin Klein campaign was such a phenomenon that it even made a column in
    TV Guide, the digest listings magazine that my mom brought home from the grocery store every Monday and that I assiduously scoured on the weekly, plotting out all the shows I wanted to watch.


    The week that photo of Marky Mark with his pants down showed up in the
    TV Guide, I quietly tore the page out of the magazine and squirreled it away in my closet. Literally, in my walk-in closet, years before I would understand the metaphor I was actively becoming a part of. And there, in my closet, I would periodically pull it out and, well, pull it out.


    This was the undeniable evidence: I was hot for guys.


    Except I didn’t want to be hot for guys, because I wanted to go to heaven.


    My family was about as liberal you could get in Arkansas in the late ’80s and early ’90s. My mom was a school teacher and my dad was a nonprofit social-services warrior; my grandpa was a department head at the College of Education for 25 years at the University of Arkansas in my hometown of Fayetteville, where I eventually went after high school.


    And yet we were also Southern Baptists.


    The church we went to for most of my formative years was about as liberal a church could be and still call itself Southern Baptist; as I remember, we got in trouble with a state Baptist association for letting women serve as deacons.

    But that same church routinely hired its youth ministers from the local university, and the church youth group was one of my main social outlets. Rodney, the youth pastor who served during my high-school years, was a red-blooded, red-state huckster from Ponca City, Oklahoma, who thought the new Tim Allen sitcom Home Improvement was the greatest thing to make it to TV. Meanwhile, I was more interested in Jonathan Taylor Thomas. But Rodney’s regular jokes about gay people at our youth group meetings made me want to go back into that walk-in closet.


    Which all led to a lot of nights of trying to pray the gay away. Literally praying to God to stop making me feel attracted to guys.Telling myself lies about my attraction to other boys just being a manifestation of wanting to be more like those boys myself—less shy and mousy, more cool, more confident.


    After I turned 16 and got a car, which I paid for out of my earnings from my first job at the good Christian company of Chick-fil-A, I started spending a lot of my spare minutes at Hastings. Hastings was the local outpost of a smallish chain of video rental, music and book superstores—so obviously it’s now gone out of business. It was where my family rented movies most weekends, but it was also, weirdly, one of the most gay-friendly and sex-positive retail outlets in Fayetteville in the early to mid ’90s—surpassed only, perhaps, by the actual sex shop, Condom Sense, which I gleefully got to buy advertisements in the Fayetteville High School student newspaper, of which I was editor.


    Our local Hastings sold gay porn magazines, which I would insert into larger issues of Rolling Stone and peruse. It had a large LGBT books section, conveniently tucked away at the back of the store, around which I and many other men and boys would hover nearby, nervously pretending not to browse the tantalizing tomes of gay erotica, anthologies of coming-out stories and Larry Kramer’s
    Faggots.


    As hard as I tried to change it, it seemed obvious that I was gay. But Jesus, was that a scary thing to admit to myself. I distinctly remember a moment from when I was in elementary school, of going out to dinner with my family at Tim’s Pizza and seeing the nightly network news on the TV (because for some reason we always seemed to have dinner at 5:30), and there was one of the early (though already far too late) reports about AIDS. And I thought, gay means AIDS.


    I quietly experimented here and there, with curious classmates on sleepovers, for instance—most of whom were strictly experimenting, and which unfortunately ended some friendships. There was only one out gay student throughout my entire high school career—his name was Larry and he was a senior when I was a sophomore and he wore feathers and rainbows every day, deploying his homosexuality like a force field. I was terrified of him. Nobody else was openly gay, although I had my suspicions about some other boys—all of which, thanks to reconnecting via Facebook years later, I’ve been able to confirm.


    Still, I made it to college with my closet intact, and moved a week before my 18th birthday into one of the two neighboring co-ed honors dorms, where life started happening fast. While still not out as gay, I had sex with a female friend down the hall who identified as a lesbian. A few months after that, in the second semester of freshman year, another female friend from down the hall, who’d quickly become one of my best friends, asked me if I’d go out with her.


    We were in my dorm room, speaking softly in one of those 3am sessions that happen in college so as not to wake my sleeping roommate Jay, when Kelly asked me if I’d be interested in going on a date.


    Time stopped.


    I was in no way out, but I’d been testing the waters in different ways over the past couple of years. I’d gotten into the theater unit at Arkansas Governor’s School, a fantastic summer program for kids between their junior and senior years of high school, by auditioning with a monologue from Paula Vogel’s AIDS allegory
    The Baltimore Waltz, and told the interview panel that I didn’t see a conflict between my strong Christian faith and having empathy for all kinds of characters. (If only I’d felt that way toward myself.) While at AGS, which took place on the campus of Hendrix College, I’d spent a revelatory afternoon in the stacks at the college library reading Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America for the first time.


    But when Kelly asked me out, I still had a thin membrane of resistance in place. I can remember my brainwaves, in that moment: This is it. You can tell this trusted friend, for the first time out loud, that you think you like dudes. OR, you can give one last shot at “normalcy,” because if there’s any girl you actually would want to date, Kelly is obviously it.


    50 years later, time resumed its normal course, and I said sure and we started dating.


    That summer after freshman year, Kelly got an amazing opportunity to go on an archeological dig in Jordan. I spent the summer living back in my high school bedroom and working at JCPenney, while also working as an actor at a new-play workshop affiliated with the university. But I also spent a lot of time at Hastings.


    I was 18 years old, my girlfriend was halfway around the world, I was living at my parents’ house and I couldn’t go out drinking or anything like that. Many nights, I came home from JC Penney to watch that day’s episode of
    All My Children I’d taped on my VCR—this was the summer when Erica Kane, Janet Marlowe and Skye Chandler were being drugged and held captive by the evil Dr. Jonathan Kinder—but with my own Hastings card now, I also started renting ALL of the movies in the store’s surprisingly large gay video section.


    And the cute gay checkout clerk named Jason, whose line I perhaps subconsciously tended to favor, took notice of what I was checking out. Eventually, he asked me if I’d like to go out for a coffee.


    Again, I was terrified, but I was also intrigued. I agreed to meet him him at a local coffee house on one of our mutual days off; we had a nice conversation, after which we went to a nearby park, and sat at a picnic table—where he kissed me.


    And suddenly, I was freaked out. I ended it there, and didn’t return his phone calls (and mind you, this is 1996, before cell phones or even caller ID were prevalent, so he was calling my parents’ phone number).

    I thought that might be the end of it, but remember: Fayetteville was a small town, and things get around. Kelly’s and my friend Wendy, who also lived in our dorm, also worked at that Hastings, and apparently she overheard some of Jason’s grousing about our aborted first and only date and put the pieces together.

    I didn’t know this until we all came back to the dorm for sophomore year. We moved in the week before classes started, and I came home from work at JCPenney on what happened to be my 19th birthday and knocked on Kelly’s door, expecting to go out on a date— only to see a serious and confused look on her face. “We need to talk.”

    We ended up walking down to another park near campus, where she laid out what had apparently been presented to her by a clutch of our friends: “Do you know a Jason from Hasting

    Again, just as it had months earlier when Kelly initially asked me out, time stopped. I panicked, tried to analyze my options (which seemed few), and burst into tears.

    My girlfriend dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of the closet. Amazingly, we continued to date for another couple of months, since at first I would only cop to being maybe bisexual (sorry, actually bisexual guys). But once we officially broke up, we couldn’t stay apart for long as friends. I started the never-ending process of coming out to friends and colleagues, and it took a couple-two-tree more years before I started coming out to my family—while I was playing Joe in our college production of Angels in America. But Kelly and I have managed to remain always each others’ closest allies; six years after that evening at the park, I did a reading at her wedding; her husband Jeremy, who joins Kelly in the small circle I count as my closest friends in the world, loves to tell strangers how his wife and I used to date.

    
    

    xoxoxoxoxooxxooxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

    KELLY:

    Do you remember what it was like when you were 18 and you were on your own for the first time and you’re discovering yourself by discovering kindred spirits? How everything that you had in common meant something monumental about space and time and your place in it? That you weren’t alone? That there were others like you? And one shared interest led to another, then a confession, and that shared intimacy led to more unburdening, and then both of your stories unfold in long, thin monologues over coffees and you’re excited to reveal and to be truly seen? Yeah, it was like that, except I found him unbearably adorable.

    Kris was super pretty. And quiet. Kinda nerdy. I was way into that before all of you. He lived down the hall from me. Wore a lot of sweaters that were too big for him. Drank a ridiculous amount of dr. pepper.

    Kris and I watched Into the Woods on VHS together. Then listened to the Indigo Girl’s rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar. We both called each other on the same day breathless to alert the other to a new discovery: Ani DiFranco. (foreshadowing.) We went to coffee houses to listen to poetry and earnest acoustic guitar. We both worked prop crew for the play ‘American Clock.’ When I went home for xmas break I had a nye party at my place, and spent the whole time on the phone with him, standing in a closet (more foreshadowing, but this time ironic), ignoring my Chicago people for a long long-distance chat. I would stay up late with him in the computer lab in the dorm and WATCH him tool around on the internet. Except in the mid 90s that mostly meant chat rooms. And so, yeah, sometimes we’d pretend to be a gay dude and rile up fellas in the gay chat rooms. That wasn’t weird, right? We ate all of our meals together. We did all of our hmwk together. I would call him to wake him in the morning, then march down to his room to make SURE that he was up. (he never was) When he threw up because of the pot, I rubbed his back. There was that one night when he and I… and Kyle (so much foreshadowing) all fell asleep entangled on that single bed. We were BEST FRIENDS! Except, the thing is, I didn’t want to be best friends. I wanted to be best friends who put the p in the v. I wanted us to hold hands and build an ark out of our love. I wanted him to be my BOYFRIEND.

    Previous to this, I was not, um, super experienced with dudes. I did date this one guy, George, for about a year, but he was mostly a good place holder. No great romance. He was really Christian. He asked me out. The guy I REALLY liked didn’t seem all that interested, so I went on the date. He kissed me. It was fine. We did it some more. Then some other stuff. Then it was a year later and he cheated on me with my best friend. Other than George I hadn’t really ‘dated.’ I certainly hadn’t initiated any relationships. But I was getting pretty desperate for Kris and I to start our life together. Why wasn’t he asking me out? When we’d sit facing each other on the bed, confessing all of our secrets, he’d look deep into my eyes. That’s a thing, right? He never talked about other girls. Not since he’d done it with THAT JENNIFER. That had been a while ago, though. And she was dating girls now. If he could do it with Jennifer, why didn’t he want to do it with me?

    So late one night. Lights off. His dorm room. His roommate Jay asleep on the other side of the room. Kris was at his computer. I was on the bed. I stared at the curls on the back of his head and, had HAD it. No more long talks into the night. No more sitting arms touching. No more soul baring. No more CONNECTING. Not without some lip on lip. So, suddenly, dramatically I erupted with something along the lines of ‘Kris, I really like you. But as more than a friend.’ Eloquent, yes. But I was terrified. I had just recklessly gotten all figuratively naked. I put our friendship at risk, and my delicate little heart. I waited, kind of panting, for his response. I remember Kris just looking at me, considering. And then he said, and I KNOW this one, he said “why not.” And then he kissed me. For a while. And then, well, I guess we were going out? I floated back to my room and slept not a wink.

    The next day began the most awkward courtship ever. I announced happily to my lady friends in the bathroom mirror that morning what had happened. Julie, especially, looked wary but tried to ignite some enthusiasm on my behalf. I chalked it up to fear that our little friend family might be blown apart by our great burgeoning romance. It wasn’t.

    Valentine’s day came along soon after our relationship’s first bloom. It was weird. We went on what I guess was our first date? Mexican food. Hot. There was a card. And some heavy petting. But it wasn’t right. I mean, George the Christian and I weren’t experts at S.E.X, but after a year together we’d done some stuff. And I was pretty good at it. But with Kris it was not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. Nor did it get particularly enthusiastic over the coming months? Probably just cause we were such good friends first. So it made naked boobs awkward. Right?

    And the emotional intimacy. Something went awry with that, too. Where once we were so tuned into each other we didn’t even have to speak, now I felt I had to sit Kris down every 3 weeks to have ‘a talk.’ To ask him where his head was at. To ask him why he didn’t seem particularly happy in our blessed union. To even ask him, gulp, if he wanted out. He’d always insist, no. he was fine. We were fine. Everything was fine. But it wasn’t. I mostly ignored it.

    I got sad. Before we were inseparable. Somehow becoming a couple made us further apart. Like, by a lot. Like, literally. He seemed to sometimes actually physically avoid me. At our end of the year gala, a fancy theater party where we’d all dress up and get wasted, I anticipated some slow dancing. Some reconnecting. A little romance. It was a datey-couples thing. I wanted some god-damned hip to hip, eye to eye, lip to lip. I wanted this cool down to heat back up. It didn’t. Instead I spent the night with this older girl named Sarah who kept telling me men were dicks and feeding me shots.

    And then it was summer. Our goodbye was, by now, characteristically cold. We didn’t break up or anything. Which would’ve made sense. Instead I went to Jordan on an archaeological dig. My first trip overseas. I wrote kris just about everyday. Like an asshole. Know how many letters I got from kris? Zero. Feel free to boo him right now. But I still hadn’t given up on him, or us. Don’t ask me why. Again, asshole.

    I came back from Jordan refreshed. Wiser. Prepared to teach Kris what love meant to the greater world. To break his spirit and make him mine. But when I got back to Fayetteville, remarkably, I didn’t have to! There he was! Kris! The one that I’d fallen for! The one who was sweet and lovely, warm and sincere. The one who wanted to be with me. To be near me. To share. He held me all the time. Jesus I was happy. I mean, no. the sexy bits didn’t really get any better. But that emotional intimacy. Shit, that stuff is addicting. And it’s hot. And it felt worth all the other mess.

    I told him that I loved him. One night after a few weeks back. In Paige’s spare bed. He held me closer. He said nothing back. I decided it was ok. That it was enough to love him.

    And then I told my friends. And I guess they had had enough.

    August 22nd1996. Back at Paige’s apartment. Paige and Wendy, Jada and Julie sit me down on the couch. They put a blanket over my lap. They gather chairs around me like I’m an ailing aunt. And they go ahead and hold a god damned intervention. Or a revelation. I don’t know. They drop some knowledge on me. And in retrospect I appreciate what they were trying to do. But having 4 of your best girlfriends surround you, over you, and announce that your boyfriend of 7 months went on a date with a dude over the summer…at the time…seemed a little aggressive.

    Apparently Wendy was at work at Hastings one night and Kris walked in. Her co-worker leans in to her and confides that he’d gone on a date with Kris a few weeks ago, but that Kris had never called him back. She assured him that that didn’t happen. Couldn’t have happened. Cause he was definitely dating, well, me. He insisted that it had.

    And that was it. Kris had gone on a date. With someone else. While I was away. With, in fact, a guy.

    What the fuck was I supposed to do with that.

    Mostly I just sat there while their four faces peered at me from above expectantly. Waiting. I needed to talk to my best friend about this. But my best friend was Kris.

    The next day was his 19th birthday. I told him that I wanted to meet him in the park. The one next door to his high school. I remember it was dark. I sat him on the picnic bench, to the south of the swings. I sat above him on the table, one leg to either side of him, holding him with my whole body, and asked if he had anything to tell me. He looked up, confused. “About this summer? I proceeded slowly. Quietly. “About a date? About ______?” I think I said his name. I don’t remember his name, this other guy. I do remember what Kris’s face looked like as it crumpled. I don’t think he said anything other than ‘I’m sorry.’ And ‘Oh God.’ And I don’t think I said anything other than ‘It’s alright’ as I rocked him as he cried.

    And that’s how I dragged my boyfriend, my best friend, out of the closet on his 19th birthday.

    My heart hurt. A lot. For me. But it hurt even more for him.

    We didn’t break up that day. There was a lot of transition that we had to go through, a lot of being honest with ourselves, both him and me, before we could officially let each other go. Ye olde ‘bisexual’ phase. That part hurt much more, actually, than the night at the park. The slow wrenching away. The hope, then the hope dashed. The closeness, but the inevitable end. I mean, we’ve all seen “The Object of My Affection.” Actually, so did Kris and I. Together. At the movie theater. Holding hands. After we’d already been through all of this. We watched ourselves, and we were ok.

    Post script: Kris and I were eventually so ok that we ended up going out to ‘celebrate’ our 1 year anniversary. We went out to a bar and got wasted. The bartender that night was wearing very tight jeans. Kris and I spent some time admiring his ass together. The next day the bartender ended up calling me. That bartender and I celebrate our 12 year wedding anniversary tomorrow. No joke. Kris stood up for us in our wedding. He read a poem. It was lovely.

  • We Got Annie by Allison Shoemaker

    My first memory:  I’m three, and standing in some unfamiliar room. I’m wearing something pale, a nightgown maybe, and there’s a pipecleaner halo perched on my head. The room is filled with grown-ups—every seat is taken, people perched on tables and armrests. The room is filled with grown-ups, and it is silent.

    I’m singing “O Holy Night”, and as I sing, I’m looking around. The room is filled with grown-ups, and they’re all looking at me. Their eyes glisten. They are utterly still. A woman I don’t know stares at me, lips trembling, and a single fat teardrop rolls slowly down her cheek.

    I experience something I’ve never felt before. It swells inside me. I did not have the language to describe that moment then, but I do now.

    It is this: fuck yeah, you’re crying.

    At this point I must make a confession: that is not my first memory. That is my second memory. My first memory is of a neighbor’s Barbie Dreamhouse. But the story is better if singing is my first, and for better or worse, I have always had a flair for the dramatic.

    Some people are compelled at an early age to create. Some simply want a place to belong. I did too. But deep down, I just wanted more of that feeling. It was a hunger that couldn’t be sated. I was hooked. They call it the bug for a reason.

    I’m five, and I’m singing everywhere I can. I’m singing in the doctor’s office. I’m singing to the grocery store clerk. I’m singing out of car windows and on porches and in parks. I am blissfully obnoxious. I love to sing, but more than that, I love to watch jaws drop. I love to stop them in their tracks. I’m five, and I am drunk with power.

    I’m six, sitting in front of the TV, when that power is given a face, and a name. That name is Annie.

    Based on a depression-era comic strip, Annie is the Tony-winning musical by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan that was single-handedly responsible for the great success of Barbizon Modeling Schools and overpriced tap lessons for many decades. Nowadays, it’s Elsa and Frozen. But that spunky red-headed orphan was first, and she left nought but misery in her wake as she cut a path of terror through the heartland. She turned generations of plucky youngsters into nightmares, and left them desperate for a fix. She doomed Moms, Dads, and poor unfortunate siblings to years of “It’s a Hard Knock Life”. She crippled families. She ruined lives. She is Annie, destroyer of worlds. Look on her works, ye mighty, and despair.

    She got me. I was toast. Another important detail: Annie is a terrible musical.

    I’m seven, and I’m killing it. The director is smiling while my Mom waits in the hall. I’m singing the song—you know the one—and serving little orphan realness, giving them big arms and big notes and those little earnest head-bobs that only exist in child actors. I’m destroying it. I’m a star.

    I’m seven, and I’m not Annie. I’m Pepper. Fuck Pepper.

    What makes Annie such a lethal weapon is that there’s only one of her. The supply cannot possibly meet the demand. What’s more, she’s an addiction that actually requires something of her junkies: you have to sing, and act, and dance, and be cute, and be good with dogs, and look good in a red wig. But even if you can do all of those things, there’s always someone else who can, too. And sometimes that bitch is a redhead.

    I’m ten, and I’m still not Annie. For the third time. I’m still Pepper. You know who Sarah Jessica Parker played on Broadway? NOT PEPPER.

    Some things you never learn: I, for example, am forever trying to rock horizontal stripes. But some things you do. I’m 25, and I’m watching the series premiere of Glee. Like all Ryan Murphy shows, it starts off strong, makes you squirm, grows more and more uncomfy, and gets cancelled three years after it stops being good. I’m not squirming because of a clown, or an asylum, or because I’ll never have hair like Connie Britton’s. I’m squirming because suddenly I can see exactly what I was like in junior high and high school. I’m Rachel Berry, and the comparison is not flattering.

    So we’ll skip all of that: the musicals, the local commercials, the expensive classes and constant auditions. We’ll skip the time I wrote a letter to a local news anchor begging for help because I heard about ABC’s remake of Cinderella and was convinced it was my destiny, and skip how I almost joined a catholic church so that I could be in Children of Eden. We’ll especially skip the friendships I neglected, classes I blew off, and money my always-broke family wasted. I’m skipping all the times I was great, and I’m skipping that I ignored the fact that I probably wasn’t great enough. There’s always someone who can do everything you can. And sometimes that bitch is a redhead.

    I’m 21, and in my last year of college. I’m sitting in an acting class surrounded by friends I love. We’re broke and underslept and desperate to make art. I no longer want to be a star. I want to be a director, and watch people watch something I helped create, and think: fuck yeah, you’re engrossed. Fuck yeah, you’re moved. Fuck yeah, you’re inspired. I am 21, and watching my friends act, and I know in my heart that I’m not one of them. I’m good, but they’re better. I do not belong here.

    Graduation comes and goes, and I head to Connecticut to manage interns program for The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The O’Neill is like camp: people come from all over to workshop new plays, make puppets, get drunk in the pub and swim in the ocean. To them, I’m just the quiet girl in the tiny office, and I like it. The last conference of the summer, the Cabaret Conference, is wonderful: singers come to build amazing solo shows, and every night ends with an open mic. I’m anonymous, and like it that way. But I feel that tug again, and suddenly I’m about to sing a great big showtune in front of a bunch of famous people. Performing isn’t like riding a bike: you lose those muscles pretty quick, and can acquire nasty case of stage fright. That’s still true: seriously, I have peed myself at least twice since coming up here. But back then, I’m 22, and I’m getting ready to sing, legs shaking and palms sweating. I am not used to being terrified. But I’m still just a five year old in a grocery store, and I can’t give up the chance to surprise these people.

    Titus Burgess threw a shoe at me. No, that’s not a euphemism, and yes, it was a compliment.

    For the next week fancy musical types asking me if they can introduce me to their agents, and it is weird, and cool. A woman does this amazing cabaret of Charles Strouse’s music, and as I sit listening to a medley from Annie, the beast awakens. Maybe you were wrong, it rumbles. Maybe you gave up too soon, it growls. One last audition, it says. One last fix. Just to see.

    I’m 23, it’s 7 a.m., and I’m walking into the call for the Chicago premiere of Wicked. I take one look around, and I feel the pure pleasure that can only come from knowing something with absolute certainty:

    I’ve made a huge mistake.

    In front of me is a line of 70 or so women, all, like me, crashing an Equity audition, and all, like me, clutching a black binder fat with sheet music. Half of them look like me: tall, dark hair, long legs. They’re all wearing black, most of them with little pops of green somewhere. The other half: petite blondes in pink. One of the Elphabas eyes me, arches her brow, and smirks. One of the Glindas gives a plastic smile. I don’t belong here. And I get a new feeling: relief.

    I wish I could say that I turned around and went right back to the train. But instead, I’m 23, I’ve been in line for five hours, and it’s finally my turn. I walk in, and my legs don’t shake. I sing my 16 bars, smile, and leave.

    I could lie and tell you I don’t miss it. That’s the best ending. I could say I never wonder what would have happened if I’d wanted it just a little bit more. I could tell you that I didn’t enter a competition to go to the Tony awards by singing in the perfume department in a Macy’s, and could pretend that at the finals for that competition, I didn’t work as hard as I could to destroy the hopes and dreams of seven-year-old Spenser from St. Louis, Missouri. But here’s the truth: I do miss it, I do still sometimes wonder, and Spenser kicked the shit out of me.

    Now I’m 31, and think it might be time to let another dream go. As I look down the barrel of a new decade, I’ve been thinking about what I want.  I want to go to the movies, and the beach. I want to paint my apartment. I want to get a dog. I’m not sure I can be broke, underslept, and desperate to make art anymore. I want that feeling, but I think I want to be a person more.

    Truth again: I don’t know who I am without it. But I think it’s time to say find out.

    After all, I’ll always be able to sing in the shower. And in my shower, I am never, ever Pepper.

  • Hungry By Blair Chavis

    When I was little, my mom used to tell me I reminded her of her mother who loved foodsweets in particular. Shed often recount memories of her mother buying a box of assorted chocolates and stashing them away on a high shelf in the front coat closet. My grandmother didnt share these chocolates with my mom, her sister or even her husband. Each night, shed sneak away to the coat closet and relish one chocolatejust one.

    As a kid, on Halloween, Id return home from trick-or-treating with my witchs cauldron full of loot, pour it out in a heap on the kitchen table, and sort it by type, size, and flavor. It would take me months to eat that candy, hiding it in my childhood desk drawer. Sometimes, it would go stale before I got through my stash, mostly because I didnt want to disrupt my carefully curated candy collection; it had an order, a purpose, and a beauty all its own. I loved to look at that candy. The anticipation of what Im about to eat is almost more delicious than the food, itself.

    While Ive never been a fussy eater, in my adulthood, Ive developed a more adventurous palette. I have outdoorsy friends who like to brag about hiking or skiing on enormous mountains; I like to brag about trying shiitake mushroom ice cream (Its disgusting; I dont recommend it).

    To say that food is a part of ones identity is an oversimplification, because every dish has an originbe it religious, ethnic, historical, or just plain personal. Foodies have re-claimed the experience of eating for bragging rights and have made our food histories sexy againbut, food never really went out of style.

    Growing up in a Jewish household, my lifelong love affair with food began early and grew more complex with age. Food was an expression of heritage, tradition, punishment, guilt, indulgence, comfort, and reward. My mom even used a promise of McDonalds as a bait-and-switch to get us to our yearly pediatrician check-ups.

    Ive taken my love for food and have assumed the pretentious foodietitle because I truly look at food as a medium through which I experience the world. Ive also made eating my jobliterally. I write for a food publication, cook at work, and play with kitchenware. Its a hard life. Its also a miracle Im not 300 pounds.

    When seeking out my future life mate, his food preferences can and have proven to be deal-breakers. What a guy orders and eats feeds me with so much information about his personality, and I want that window into his hungry soul early.

    I dated a guy Id met online a while back who was gluten-intolerant (before gluten allergies were cool) and all I wanted to do when I was around him was eat bread. The sheer idea of being deprived of bread in the name of politeness was maddening. We went to an Italian restaurant and the news of his gluten intolerance sent me spiraling into the bread basket.

    Ive never been one of those girls who feigns a small appetite on a date. If youre going to love me, you must also love my love for food. Im not dainty. Ill clean my plate, and Ill still want dessertyoull have to get your own; I dont share.

    A couple of years ago I made a re-entrance into the online dating world after a several-year hiatus. When I'd sampled it before, the experience left a bad taste in mouthso rancid, I swore I'd never try it again.

    During my first online dating interlude, the menu included guys who lied about their looks; guys who lied about their age; guys who lied about their looks and age; guys who drank too much; guys who talked too much; guys who loved their mothers too much; guys who loved their ex-girlfriends too much; guys who loved their therapists too much and so on

    Never, had I come across a guy who loved his scale too muchthat is, until now.

    Id been talking with a good-on-paper guy on OKCupid and he offered to meet me at a small Mexican restaurant in Roscoe Village, where I lived at the time. When I arrived at Que Rico!, the Qwas dangling low from the sign over the doora bad omen, perhaps.

    Inside, the restaurant had warm, yellow walls, garnished with mounted animals wearing sombreros and other pseudo-Mexican decorative disasters. Two tables were occupied: one with a couple quietly enjoying their dinner and another with an eager young man sitting in a button-down, plaid shirt and jeans.

    As I approached the mans table, he rose out of his chair and gave me an awkward hug. I smiled in relief because he at least somewhat resembled his online dating profile picture, with an average build, light-brown hair, a pronounced nose and large, blue, kind eyes. His smile reminded me of a middle-school, class photo featuring an awkward teen trying to cover up his braces by overcompensating with too much lip. I think this guys lips just stretched that way.

    As I took off my coat and hung it on the back of my chair, we exchanged polite nice to meet yous.I sat down and unfolded my napkin on my lap while he took a drink of water.

    You like this?He pointed to his plaid shirt. I got this at Good Will. Can you believe it?He bragged.

    Thats nice,I nodded. I love an amazing bargain as much as the next girlbut I dont know if that would have been my opener.

    As I reached for my menu, he asked with alarm, Are you going to order?

    To which I replied, Why? Arent you hungry? Did you have a late lunch?

    I dont eat dinner,he said.

    You dont eat dinner??I asked.

    He went on to explain that hed learned he could get away with one meal a day after fasting for an obscure Jewish holiday. In the same breath, he bragged that hed lost 60 pounds.

    Thats nice,I said nodding, reaching for my water glass, suddenly parched. Which meal do you eat?

    Lunch,he said proudly.

    Why had he invited to me to dinner if he so clearly wasnt a fan?

    Was this all some test to see if I could handle his man-orexic tendencies?

    Was he just so proud of his new-found starvation diet that he needed to show it off in a challenging environment?

    Did he want me to join his one-meal-a-day regime and start a revolutionthis isnt the Hunger Games, for Gods sake!?

    After a few seconds of staring uncomfortably at him, looking down at my menu, and then back up at him, I was simply speechless. Sensing my perplexed state, he conceded.

    I guesssince I lost a few more pounds on the scale this morning, I can splurge and eat dinner,”  he said.

    I ordered a huge sizzling plate of fajitas and voraciously devoured it as he picked at his plate like a pigeon. Through the entire meal, I was screaming inside. I wanted to break free from this yellow-walled cage, fajitas in hand, and flee through the flatlands of Roscoe Village for my apartment where I could just enjoy my damn fajitas in peace.

    We all must take a moment to acknowledge that this guy likely had an eating disorder, which is no joking matter.

    That said, if I were to create a "seasonal menu" themed after this man, I would title it "Gluttonous Over-Sharing." Guys who spoil your palette before youve ordered your drink are truly the anti-amuse-boucheof dating, and Ive met plenty of them.

    I never heard from the Good-Will-touting emaciated man after that date. I spotted him at a bar months later with a beer in his hand and wondered how he reconciled all of those calories. We didnt acknowledge each other, but I knew his hungry little secret.

    Unfortunately, it has taken me a couple years since this experience and several more foul dates to realize I dont have to STAY. Just this year, I met a supposed foodiefor tapas in Wicker Park, and not only was he half an hour late, but he showed up drunk and/or highand the worst insult of allhed already eaten! Only minutes into the date, I decided to leave, as his eyes were rolling back into his head. I would have made a spectaclebut he wouldnt have remembered it.

    These hostile culinary dating experiences beg an even greater question:

    What sort of hunger should my true love possess?

    If hes merely satisfied with a plate of mac and cheese and hot dogs, because thats what he ate as a kid, and if he has no curiosity about ramen-crusted pizza or avocado chocolate mousse, where can we go from here?

    If he has a disdain for, or even worse yet, an ambivalence about food, how else will he consume and digest this vast and delicious world?

    I want a man who would be mortified when faced with the question: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

    I want a man who wants to taste everything.

  • Stacie Andrews by Susan Myburgh

    Stacie Andrews and I were high school best friends. She was skinnier, prettier, and smarter than me. Her edgy music collection far exceeded mine, which consisted mostly of Now That’s What I Call Music! volumes and my dad’s copy of Bridge Over Troubled Water. What I lacked in punk-rockery, I made up in my unmatched ability to dress like a teenage slut. Stacie taught me about Guttermouth and Warped Tour, and I taught her how to pair skin-tight jeans with red pleather jackets from Charlotte Russe. She tried explaining politics to me, while I showed her how to apply face glitter. One time I convinced her to try an at-home leg wax kit, and we spent the rest of the weekend shaving chunks of hardened wax off of her legs in a panic. We bonded over how much our parents didn’t get us and how it was so hard growing up in a mostly white, upper-middle class beach community because “The Man”, man. Most importantly, we never EVER fought, not even about boys.

    The Summer we turned 15, we begged our parents to give us the $300 each to sign up for Driver’s Ed. We had big plans of buying some piece of shit car and taking a cross-country road trip before we headed off to college. We’d stop off at music festivals, eat Cheetos and cold hot dogs, and sleep on the side of the road, because, adulthood. After enough nagging, our parents caved (pussies!). Around that same time, Stacie discovered that her biggest crush of all eternity, Tray Nielson, also signed up for our Driver’s Ed session.  Tray, in a word, was like…

    HolyBallsHotinthatLipRingedOilyHairHaven’tWashedMyClothesInaFewWeeks

    ...kind of way.

    We spent the days leading up to Driver’s Ed talking about what Stacie should say, do, and wear to make sure Tray wanted to get in on her shit. We had every detail planned out. After all, love means changing who you are so someone will want to have sex with you. When the first day of Driver’s Ed rolled around, Stacie was looking slamming in her Vans platform sneakers and butterfly hair clips. Like every good high school best friend, I was ready to laugh at her dumb jokes and help her re-apply white eyeliner during bathroom breaks. How else would she look effortlessly cool?

    Let me take this moment to tell you about the time that I broke my cousin’s favorite red, Barbie doll corvette in half.

    Yes, in half…as in one half and then another half.

    I did this because I was upset that I didn’t have one of my own. My cousin cried for a day. She was 15 and I was 5. There was also that time I cheated on every spelling test in the 6th grade. In my defense I’m not from this country and words are hard. I also used to bite my little sisters so hard they would bleed. I did this for a number of reasons, but mostly because as their older, wiser, and prettier sibling, I thought it was my duty to teach them that sometimes life isn’t fair. I’m also sure that I have silently judged at least 98% of you on the CTA, largely for being you. Now that I’ve got you all on my side, it is time to admit the inevitable. Deep down in my disturbed little teenage heart, I wanted Tray to want in on my shit too. I wanted Tray to fuck me more than he wanted to fuck Stacie. Sure! I was totally still a virgin and had only learned what a boner was a few weeks prior. And sure, Stacie could totally even get sloppy seconds. And no, I didn’t even want him to be my boyfriend. I just wanted to win.

    Because.

    I stopped laughing at Stacie’s dumb jokes and definitely stopped helping her apply white eyeliner. I started cutting our evening marathon phone conversations short. All we were talking about anyway was stupid shit like what Tray really meant when he said, “Can I sit here?” And even if I did know what his subtext was when he lifted his left eyebrow on the word “here”, I wasn’t about to give Stacie any more ammunition to win him over before I did. I acted like I forgot that we made plans to have her older sister drive us to class, secretly asking my dad to drop me off on his way to work so that I could get a prime real-estate spot next to Tray. I worked tirelessly to force conversation and make up pointless inside jokes with him.  Anything and everything to make Stacie feel small and unwanted.

    The most exciting day in Drivers Ed is Mall Day. This is the day the instructors pop a couple extra antidepressants and allow students to drive to the local mall in groups of three while they sit in the passenger seat, clench their teeth, and ask themselves what they’ve done to deserve this life. On Mall Day you stroll around, eat lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s, and casually twirl the car keys on your index finger so that everyone who walks past knows that you just drove a car. On a highway. To. The. Fucking. Mall. Mall Day is the coolest. Mall Day was also when I decided I would seal the deal with Tray. I made sure to bully my way into the same car as him. Stacie managed the finagle her way in too, but that didn’t stop me from sitting in the back seat playing footsie with him while she almost drove into a literal and figurative ditch of jealousy. I was on cloud nine. Stacie’s envy of my budding relationship with Tray was fueling me. And God, it felt fucking fantastic.

    When we arrived at the mall, she pulled into a parking spot and pushed extra hard on the breaks, nearly catapulting Tray and me through the front window as the car halted to a stop. The teary-eyed glare I caught from her in the rearview mirror confirmed that the move was in every way intentional. She was the Brandy to my Monica and bitch, the boy was mine. As we slinked into the booth at Ruby Tuesday’s, I remember that I had a big, round, red Tootsie Pop in my purse. Clueless taught me that nothing screams “Fuck Me, Tray Nielson,” like intensely sucking on a lollipop. So I casually dug around in my silver, sequined hobo bag, slowly unwrapped the lollipop, and started “mmmh-ing” at how much I just looooooved strawberry flavor. Tray leaned over and asked if he could try it. Exactly like I wanted him to. I kept my cool as I took the lollipop out of my mouth and stuck it into his and then back into mine, getting off on the thought of our salivas combining into one pinkish-red coat of spit on the surface of the Tootsie Pop. “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” I coyly giggled as my hormones celebrated how unbelievably effortless I was making it all seem. Dammit, I was good at this.

    She must have surrendered after the lollipop move, because Stacie didn’t speak another word for the rest of Mall Day. That night I didn’t even notice that there was no call from her to go over our evening Tray play-by play. I didn’t think twice about the fact that she wasn’t in class the next day, and didn’t bother contemplating the value of our friendship when Tray eventually asked me for my number.

    I tried to go back and remember how it all panned out between me and Tray, but the details are murky. I think we may have made out once or twice. I don’t remember if we ever held hands in a movie theater, or if we went on an actual date to the movie theater to begin with. I can’t tell you anything about his interests, and I don’t know his middle name or what he wanted to be when he grew up. And I definitely didn’t lose my virginity to him. That would happen a year later at a party, to some guy whose name I honestly don’t remember. It was as gross and desperate as it sounds.

    Stacie and I sort of kind of stayed friends for a few more years. We still never really fought. We didn’t even talk about what happened at Mall Day. Tray was the last crush she sought my valued high school best-friend opinion on. I think she realized she was smarter than me and that face glitter was easily the worst thing that happened to the early 2000s. I got really into drama school and she got really into environmental activism, patchouli, and the 2004 election.

    During our freshman year of college, we both made some half-assed efforts to pretend we were still friends. We went to the movies with a group of girls she met in her dorm during the first week of classes. I drove us all in the boat-sized Cadillac Catera that my parents bought me before I left for college. While Stacie and her gaggle of buds sat in the backseat, they made inside jokes and talked about things I didn’t understand. It was awkward and hard to keep up. Afterwards, I dropped Stacie and her new college friends off at her dorm. We shared a glimpse in the rearview mirror and said a casual “See ya’.” Then they all vanished through the doors to their dorm-room building in their matching Birkenstocks. I started to cry.

    The last time I had any form of contact with Stacie was somewhere around the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2005. I decided to throw a last minute New Years Eve party at my apartment. It wasn’t your typical college rager or anything; the guest list consisted of my boyfriend, his buddies, and a small group of my theatre friends. Maybe it was the Miller High Life or that inevitable wave of nostalgia that overcomes you as all your friends drunkenly sing-slur the words to “Auld Lang Syne.” Regardless, I decided to give Stacie a call. I got her voicemail, and in a mess of tears I told her that I missed her and would love to catch up some time. It was my signature way of apologizing without ever actually saying the words “I” and “Am” and “Sorry.” I never got a return call. For a while my feelings were hurt. I felt small and unwanted and I knew I deserved it.

  • Mr. Fancypants Showman by Ben Miner

    I was 16, a twerp of a kid weighing barely 100 lbs. and a scratch under 5 ft., I had a mouth full of metal and thought of myself as pretty sexy. It was in this God-like form, I remember the first time I had come to terms with the fact that I was not going to be the person my dad had thought I would be.

    He’d had me playing sports year round and would always help out or coach my teams. Organized sports in school didn't do much for me but make me an expert in how to get knocked unconscious. "You're my guy! My guy! Ben-n-nn-ny, I just love seeing you out there,” he'd always say, and I loved that my dad loved that I was out there. In high school though, I found my way into theater. Finally! It didn't matter how small of a human I was. I was becoming a showman.

    One Sunday that year, I got the opportunity to chase my own dream — to be an actor. I got lucky. At the mall, this random booth helmed by two swanky ladies from LA was in South Bend, Indiana to find "The Next Big Thing," their banner even said it.

    This. Was. Awesome. I had already had two whole years under my belt dabbling in high school theater was even voted Best New Face Improviser my freshman year. My resume was stacked.

    "Ben, you should do that," my mom tells me.

    "What? No..." I play off my mom's encouragement as if I'm too cool, and you know she doesn't get my business.

    "YES! Come on, it's like American Idol," she says in the sweetest voice.

    She was right. Right there in front of a Macy's next to a stand selling knock off beanie babies was my moment. Words from my freshman theater teacher start ringing in my head. LOUDLY.

    "You should always have a monologue ready! I even gave you one..."

    Several in fact. They were there. I can see them. They are in a folder, which is red... Yes, Red Folder! Here ye, red folder, please let me open you up and let me read those monologues line by line in my mind from memory. Ugh. Tragedy. Damn you, photographic memory I was going to work on last week, you're failing me.

    "So what's your name?"

    Shit, I'm here. Before I know it my mom has me dead center in front of this table. There's no time to think. The lights are on- it's showtime.

    "What's in a name," "How about your next big star"... My arrogance pollutes the mall around me. The two ladies, Julie and Margaret, sit behind the table reeking of a potpourri of fancy expensive perfume and a horrible drinking habit. A smell that strangely made me feel right at home.

    I read a few lines from a fake commercial for a fake sports drink and interview a nearby shopper who says he's from South Bend, Indiana, and anyone who is anyone in South Bend can talk about Notre Dame Football. He knows Notre Dame. I know Notre Dame.

    "You see this, Julie and Margaret, we're connecting."

    The ladies invite my mother and me the next day, to a larger audition at a local Best Western.

    After another successful day of wooing, Julie and Margaret meet up with us after and offer to cover the entry fee to enter into a weeklong talent convention in Los Angeles full of auditions and workshops. Assuring us no one else is getting this offer.

    To my fellow theater folk, I know what you're thinking: this is a scam. Yes, probably, but it just seemed too legit to quit.

    The only problem in sight here is that we'd have to find flights and rooms and a way to finance this dream. My mom and I formulated our battle plan for my dad; timing was going to be everything. At the time, my dad had a delivery route for Entenmanns Strudels. Many early mornings and many early afternoons he'd be well asleep before the 6 o'clock news. His skin was thick when it came to these conversations, but I knew the chink in that armor- his undying love for his son...

    My mother and I get back home from the audition; our faces like we had just won the lottery. My dad in the kitchen dripping sweat fresh from yard work. This is not the right time. Within two steps inside- my confidant blows the lid off our plan and spills the beans on what we've been up to and within the same breath asks for money.

    "What!?!? How much!?!" My dad's blood boils as he begins to see the dollars in his bank account vanish into some black hole.

    "DAD! This is my dream! I'm supposed to be an actor! It's what I'm meant to be. I'm never going to get a chance like this again."

    "I don't care, if they really like you that much why can't they pay for your trip out there."

    "Why are you being such an ass?! Dad, I'm your son. You just never want to support me! I'm not a baseball player, I'm an actor."

    Tears stream down my face. The battle cry is getting louder and even more annoying; my voice full of puberty cracks and involuntary spitting. I cry out my words of war. He roars like a lion upset someone is spraying in his den. The situation concludes a bleak outlook. I can feel myself losing ground, without any further calculation- I'm ready to go nuclear.

    You see there's one thing you don't tell my dad — ever, and that's: "You don't love me!" I scream as loud as I can.

    My mother, the traitor, slinks out the room. Things just got real. My father and I go nose to nose as the volume of our voices echo through the subdivision around us.

    "Oh no, you ungrateful little prick!? You think I don't love you." My dad is now so close to my face I can smell his pickle breath.

    In an instant, family stories of bar fights where my dad sent people to the hospital conveniently pop into my head. You see; my father comes from a large family where everyone put their time into serving this country, even my aunt and grandmother. Everyone except my dad. And wouldn't you know, not one of them would dare fight my dad more than once. Who needs training? My dad was tough.

    "You wanna go!?" My dad challenging my proclamation.

    Oh. I wanna go. This isn't going to be pretty. My dad and I start wrestling as I punch for anything and everything I can. It gets mean when he puts me into a headlock; my tears that cover my face and neck allow me to weasel out quickly. There are a few punches back and forth each pop hurts worse than the last and after a minute it's over. I'm done. He's done. This is ridiculous. We both look to catch our breath as so many hateful words are flying back and forth and I run to my room.

    I blast Eminem for a good couple of hours like any verifiably crazy teenage tantrum, as my inner thug needs redemption. I lock myself in and we sit. And by we- I mean me. My father, I assume goes about his day. No remorse. How could he be so insensitive to crush the hopes and dreams of his only son?

    After the dust has settled and the wounds have mended many days later I approach my father again. I apologize. He apologizes. We're good. He decides to make a family vacation out of the situation. Also, originally from LA he's already connected with family he hasn't seen in years. Somehow turning all the drama into a positive. Clever father.

    During the trip, we find ourselves at some swanky hotel full of people for the convention; models, actors, and wannabe show hosts.

    My teenage mind is so overwhelmed with all the beautiful people that I later find out that I met Adam Sandler. I don't remember meeting Adam Sandler. A week goes by and I hardly see my family. I'm in my actor zone with workshops and auditions. Our family would meet up for breakfast every morning to talk about how much they are enjoying LA and close every night together but our interactions are limited.

    Regardless, the week of workshops and auditions lands me at an audition for a new show from the writers of "Freaks and Geeks".

    The night I find out about the audition I swing back to the hotel to find my parents in the room. They ask me how things are going and I tell them about the audition.

    "What!? That's great," they tell me.

    My parents ask me out to dinner to celebrate. My response is the virtual antithesis of "social grace."

    "Fuck no, I don't want to go to dinner. I have shit to do. This is my shot, this is my moment. What the fuck, why would I go do anything right now, I have to get ready..."

    I bet my father didn't see that coming. I'm sure a simple "No, thank you," would suffice. My parents look to each other. "Fine, we'll do dinner without you then," my father says very matter of fact. My parents walk out, as they wish me a "good night."

    Good night.

    The audition the next day goes well; but I obviously lose the part to forces outside my control. We go home as a family, but we never speak of the trip until many years later when I tell them I'm writing this story. My parents laugh now as "Little shit" is their main operative word to describe me, even though their love transcends my disrespect. They assure me I'm not like that anymore- they're nice like that.

    Although, I'd like to believe that the reality of life is that no matter where we are in life: we are all just "coming of age". The bitter truth is that while you may think you are standing on a mountain looking at the destinations that may be possible, sometimes you have to step off it and far enough away on to a path to look back at the mountain to see it for its true glory…and to really know where you truly stand.

  • The Real World: Me by Michael Van Kerckhove

    In the Season 4 finale of Road Rules, the road trip spin off to MTV’s The Real World, Erika says something like, “When you leave the place where you grew up, you find out you’re a different person than who you thought you were.”

    I have a handful of Real World and Road Rules related tales, many with plenty of details and sidebars I don’t have room for here. But I do want to share with you what I can as my relationship with the shows, like any relationship, has a story. It’s the true story of a young man who so desired to be a seven stranger picked to live in a house and have his life taped. To both share and learn about himself; to pick up enough experience points to reach the next level; to maybe become a pioneer or an icon! Okay, to meet a cute guy and to force himself, lest their scene not make the cut, to open up more and not shut himself off, his companion holding him unable to read his mind, and wouldn’t that have been helpful later in life?

    All when there’s barely an internet, and definitely no Facebook, or Myspace, or even Friendster. Remember Friendster? No blogs or vlogs or podcasts or YouTube monologues. No cell phone cameras, no nothing. Just good old paper and analogue goodness: ‘zines and crashed frequencies and cable access. Friendship books and pen pals. Open mic nights and showcases in bars, cafés, and eager college amphitheaters.

    If you know the show, you’ll know I never sat in a hot tub with six other strangers sharing my secrets, or jumped off a bridge bungee-strapped to my fellow Roadies. But I did leave home like most of us do. In August 1992, three weeks before I left home to start college, I caught a marathon of the first Real World season in New York, including the finale where everyone was crying and saying “goodbye” and I totally lost my shit, and was like, Why am I not on this show? This is such a Me show!

    I want to tell you about how I obsessed the following summer over the second season in L.A. How, to pass the time at my job cutting grass at a cemetery near my house in Detroit, I fantasized about replacing kicked-out David instead of that Glen. David had ripped the blanket off only-underwear-clad Tami and shit went down, yo.

    And here’s an excerpt from my Season 3: San Francisco application letter:

    October 1993: [A friend] told me today that the first time she saw me, she thought I was weird. When she talked to me, she knew I was weird, but not the kind of weird where she’d pull out her Mace if she saw me hanging around her car in a darkened parking lot. I guess that’s good. I always knew I was never quite normal. I would say I’m a bit on the dark/goth side. I consider myself a “nice guy.” I’m more or less outgoing and easy to get along with. 

    Several weeks later I received an encouraging form letter informing me I was not selected: We’re so impressed with the thoughtfulness, creativity, and passion contained in the letters. We could easily put together a hundred casts from those who’ve responded. Well. Maybe they wanted someone who wasn’t easy to get along with. Or they weren’t impressed by my interest in Wicca. Or didn’t like the full-body shot photo I sent where I’m dressed all in black. Or maybe they were afraid I’d be boring. In the end, I suppose it was either me or Pedro Zamora. I wasn’t the pioneer they were looking for.

    I want to tell you about how during my second summer at the cemetery in 1994, a coworker backed into my ten year old Plymouth Reliant, denting its side. How since the car still ran, I took the insurance money and bought a VHS camera to become a one-man Real World camera crew, recording footage at home and work, on back-to-school day junior year, at theatre house parties, and “confessionals” with myself.

    I learned about the fast approaching 1995 London season application deadline while stressing over finals when my roommate received an invitation letter to apply, and I was all like, “Why did he get a letter? This is my show dammit!” Watching that season’s Jay the playwright, I was like, “That should have been me!”

    I eventually received rejection letters from 1997’s Boston season as well as two seasons of Road Rules. And Season 7 in Seattle was my last eligible season before I was too damn old. Still, I kept focusing my life through a Real World lens, even writing an article for the inaugural issue of HERO, a new gay men’s magazine themed the “great divide” between gay and straight men. My article, My Real World: Kalamazoo chronicled a year of life in my college house with five other guys, but to further my Real World rejection, was cut before the issue went to press.

    I want to tell you about how Road Rules Season 5 took the Roadies to Detroit Receiving Hospital where their mission was to work a 27-hour emergency shift. How they met Dr. Tim, and how he and cast mate Anne struck up a romance. How my mom worked as a tutor at connected Detroit Children’s Hospital and she’d see Dr. Tim in the cafeteria and said he’s cuter in person than he is on TV. And how I believe this is the only time my mother (who passed away four years later) and I ever bonded over a guy.

    Then on a trip to Boston in the fall of 1998, I peered inside that season’s vacated firehouse, and I checked out the back steps where the smokers powwowed in episode one. And then these two tween girls (probably fans) approached the house and I was all, “Kinda makes you feel like Montana’s going to come walking through the door,” and they looked at me like I had two heads. Touching this house was concrete proof that the whole thing was indeed real.

    I want to tell you how on Halloween ‘98, I met Real World: Miami Dan at Roscoe’s in Chicago while I wore a gold glitter mask with purple feathers and a green tinsel wig, my first in-the-flesh connection; and how one night in 2006 I ended up taking care of a drunk ex-Roadie at Hydrate while wanting to/not wanting to ask him about all his Real World/Road Rules friends; how a guy friend I went out with a couple times in college and a guy I did a show with in Ann Arbor were supporting players on the Philadelphia and first New Orleans seasons respectively.

    And I want to tell you about how before watching the first season on that day in August 1992 before leaving home to start a new life, I took a walk to our old neighborhood and stood in front of the house that I lived in through the end of 8th grade and just stared, even if I couldn’t touch. And how I didn’t care who saw me because it’s my fucking house.

    And this gets me to thinking about houses. My houses and Real World houses and home and Erika’s quote and how I found her quote in a 1998 journal entry where I’m having lunch with my college friend Kathleen at a Livonia, Michigan mall Olga’s less than five months before my move to Chicago and her grad school graduation, and she isn’t sure what’s next and so she asks me, “Is it okay to be scared?” and I answer, “Hell yes!” because I am terrified, but also exhilarated, and I didn’t bother applying to Seattle because by then I didn’t need a reality TV show to figure it all out, anyway. Right? And I still don’t. At 40, even the thought of getting on an HGTV real estate or makeover show sounds terrifying and invasive. While yes, I want to share my personality and creative endeavors with the world, as a storyteller, I’d prefer to be both the writer and the editor of my life, thank you.

    Finally, there’s this: I want to tell you how in October 2001 I met my now husband Ernie, at Unabridged Bookstore, without a single camera in sight to catch the porn I held in my hand for half our conversation, or my waiting for him in front of About Face Theatre on Broadway that night for the show we both had tickets for, or our having drinks in a new Boystown hotspot, and my then throwing up those drinks in his studio apartment bathroom. How a month later, production wrapped on The Real World: Chicago, and I may have stalked the cast just a little while they were here by riding my bike down to North Avenue Beach where they worked and by walking past the house on my way(ish) to writers group meetings making eye contact with a camera guy in the window of Local Grind.

    I want to tell you about how before the show vacated its tumultuous Wicker Park location they held an AIDS charity auction and sale, and for $15 and a signed waiver promising we wouldn’t discuss anything with the press, Ernie and I got inside Real World nerd heaven. Up the elevator, past the fish tank, and into the main space: bright and colorful and SO Real World. How we found the hot tub and opened the mostly by now empty kitchen drawers and cabinets. How I wanted a souvenir but the house had been pretty picked over after earlier-in-the-day fights. How for $80 we could buy their bed sheets, but I was like, I don’t think so. Ew. How I settled on a couple of four dollar cookie cutters (a bicycle and a pumpkin) and anxiously awaited the episode where the roommates have an all night drunken cookie bake-off, which did not happen.

    I want to tell you how I discovered a partially opened sliding book case and gave it a push—and found the Confessional where the cast can vent on camera outside of scheduled interviews. How in the middle of this tiny room was an empty chair facing a naked tripod and that I sat and looked into an imaginary camera, practically wetting myself: “So, I met this cute guy, Ernie...” How Ernie joined the fun by yelling, “That bitch! Blah, blah, blah.” And how I grabbed him and planted a big fat KISS on his adorable lips.

    You sure as hell couldn’t tell that not-quite 18 year old staring at his childhood house still seeing every corner in his memory and thinking he knew who he was, that in less than ten years he’d be kissing the man he’d spend the rest of his life with in a house he can see every corner of thanks to MTV. This moment would totally have made the cut.

  • The White Boys by Elizabeth Gomez

    I must have been about 37 when he walked into my world. He was six years my junior and built like a God. One of those fast and athletic Gods, like Hermes; not so much a powerful-too-many-steroids-and-small-dick God like Zeus. When I first saw him, my cheeks flushed, my body warmed, and the in-between-my-legs-place gushed. Ryan Gosling was my dream boy. Tall, blonde, perfectly sculpted body, and white, so, so white.

    Ryan Gosling represented everything I couldn’t have throughout most of my life, or so I thought. White boys didn’t kiss brown girls like me; brown skinned, acne faced, chunky bodied, frizzled haired, completely-obsessed-with-Ted-McGinley-because-one-day-we-would-get-married-on-the-LOVE-BOAT-girls like me. White boys liked white girls. This was the way of the world, I realized as I sat at my 4th grade desk staring at a folded letter marked “No”.

    I had slipped that letter onto Tyler Jackson’s desk right before class that morning. I spent the whole night before making sure my handwriting was neat, feminine, yet festive. The message needed to state a clear intent yet not a bossy one. And of course, no love letter was complete without straight lined, sharply angled, square boxes clearly marked “Yes” or “No” for your new potential ‘lover” to give you permission to write his name all over your notebook.

    Tyler was the most transparent boy in school. When summer recess came, I thought it was completely irresponsible of the teachers to let that kid outside. But, Tyler was brave and unafraid about the way his ghostly face and neck would turn a vividly bright red within seconds of seeing the sun. All the other kids would pull out their sunglasses to reflect the light beaming off his skin while I would bathe in the glory of all his radiance while he transformed into a strawberry.

    I sat at my desk folding and unfolding my letter. Was I clear when I asked, “Do you like me? Will you be my boyfriend?” Was this 4th grader not ready to commit to his soul mate forever? Maybe it was the way the folded corners of the envelope slightly collapsed in, like my heart when he said no. Without realizing it Tyler Jackson had set me on a path of no return; to seek and destroy all white men. Ok, I didn’t actually think of destroying anyone, that would be some boiling-a-rabbit kind of shit, but I definitely was hoping to crumple some hearts.

    The next potential beau was Jason McCleary. That’s not his real name. It totally is! He won’t ever hear this and if he does, he should be proud to have been the target of my affections because I’ve finally pulled my shit together and my skin has cleared up. Jason was everything I wanted in a man. He was white.

    I could spend hours imagining spending hours staring into his deep blue oceanic eyes. I knew if Jason would pick me as his girlfriend, my Korean mother would be proud. At some point, my mother said to me that she never cared who I dated, as long as he was white, but definitely not Puerto Rican. My father was Puerto Rican. What I came to understand later was that my mom would be happy if anyone would date me because she never thought I had a chance with men because I was too “pig head”, “wirld”, and had a big nose.

    Growing up in a small blue collar town in Virginia, I wasn’t exposed to many people of color and was the token “What Are You?” girl amongst my friends in school. That’s what people would ask me, daily, because clearly I wasn’t white and clearly I wasn’t black. I was brown but not even dark enough to be mistaken as Mexican.

    Being asked, “What are you?” when I was younger didn’t bother me, and I doesn’t bother me now because I know that people are curious. Still, thinking of those words from the perspective of a well-rounded adult stings a little and makes me wonder if that had anything to do with my need to belong to a group; to be neatly labeled and categorized. It also shames me that the one group of people I wanted to belong to, the smart wealthier white kids, was the one that rejected me the most. What the hell was I thinking? We all know the best group to belong to are The Gays.

    Jason, unlike Tyler, was a kid of working class parents, like me. I was sure we’d have more in common than Tyler and I did, if he could look past my pimply scarred skin. We both liked metal. Well, he liked metal and I learned the names of all the bands before crafting my awesome look-at-me-I-too-love-Megadeth-and-hairspray love letter. We both had siblings, we were both people, and it was clearly fate.

    Once again, I sat in my desk, a year older, none the wiser, staring at a “no” checked box in my hand. I watched Kim Cullerton, not her real name… it totally is because she should know that she destroyed my life… lean against Jason’s desk. Jason’s face turning as pink as original flavored Big League Chew gum as Kim’s white blonde waist length hair tickled his shoulder.

    High school was pretty dry for me. I was afraid to talk to most boys for fear of rejection. For a number of years, I dated the one drifty brown kid that came into our school. He took my virginity and eventually dumped me for Taylor Stephens, who would later turn out to be a lesbian, which gave me great satisfaction to know that he clearly didn’t know how to fuck her either. Disclaimer: I am well aware that people don’t “become” gay, but please let me have this moment.

    It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that I had been holding the magical key to my sexual kingdom the whole time! While standing in the hall to my dorm room, which actually was a Ramada Inn because my art school was reconstructing the dorms, I find out that men, not just the white ones, but most all men, “Have a thing for Asians.”

    “What are you talking about?” I asked my newest crush, Tyrone. Not white, but black and dark, so, so dark, tall, with abs for days, and puffy fat lips that spoke words in a Barry White voice that would make my knees weak.

    “It’s a thing. Men like Asians and they like Latin girls, too. C’mon, Elizabeth, you know you got it like that,” Tyrone said as he brushed the hair out of my eyes and my panties accidentally fell to the ground, which was weird because I was wearing jeans.

    I couldn’t believe it. I “had it like that”. What did that mean? Did I always have it like that? Did I catch it when I forgot to bring flip flops into the gym shower? “What do I have, Ty? Tell me everything I have. WAIT! Let me grab a pen and then tell me.”

    Tyrone proceed to ignore me and laughed because he thought I was charming, but I was desperate to know about my new found powers. He told me that I was funny and exotic and that big noses were beautiful, especially on my face; he never mentioned my acne scarred skin. He turned my hands around in his hands. I admired how they were two different colors; one side dark, the other side light. He whispered something in my ear, but I was too busy trying to will my jeans off like my panties and then he kissed me.

    The next morning as I watched him sleep, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why did I let my self-worth be measured by white boys for so long when there were so many strikingly colorful people in the world? The answer laid in the question, “What are you?” I didn’t know what I was, but I knew I had spent too much time wanting to be white. White like my friends in school, like the Keatons on Family Ties, and like Olivia Newton-John.

    But, that wasn’t who or what I was. Tyrone clearly explained that the night before, I had “that thing” and that thing, whatever that meant, was my thing and Ty liked it. I mean, not to brag, but he liked it a lot, like several times that night, I’m saying record breaking a lot. His warmth and honesty made me understand what I was and that was an idiot - a complete and total idiot for not understanding that being matters much more than belonging.

    Tyrone, probably to his dismay, opened up my world. Men started looking like a Baskin Robbins challenge and 31 flavors was not enough. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the white guys, especially if they look like Ryan Gosling, or even Seth Rogen, if I imagine him with his mouth sewn shut, but at least it’s no longer about my insecurities about my race or face, rather, my focus is about what I want and who I love and boy, I do love them all.

  • How Old Are You? by Bill Howes

    Like gay men in their early 20s I had a checklist about my future husband.  Also, like many gay men of any age I thought I would find my true love at Sidetrack.

    It’s Monday night.  I arrive a little later than usual, get my Currant Crush, and look for a seat in the main room.  Fortunately I find one on the upper rail.  I sit down, look to my right and notice the person sitting next to me. 

    I go through the preliminary checklist.

    Cute,  check

    Singer, check (bonus point for knowing the words)

    Age appropriate, check

    Nicely dressed, check

    And then I go back to my drink and my show tunes.  I sing a song or two and then: String Tremolo.   “I had a dream.  A dream about you baby.”

    At this point the cute, age appropriate, nicely dressed singer turns to me and slurs:  “I love Rosalind Russell.”

    We spent the rest of the evening talking.  We talked of travel and books, hobbies and jobs, opera and art.  It was wonderful.

    After a day of getting to know each other he finally asked me this seemingly innocent question:

    “So, how old are you?”

    “23,” I said, at which point he promptly asked to see my driver’s license.  What you should understand is that while I have not always had this distinguished mane of grey hair I have always looked older than my age.  From the age of twenty I knew the glory of Miss Clairol because of her ability to cover my grey.

    “Wow” he said. “You are 23.”

    “How old are you?” I asked, not unreasonably.

    “I’m not going to answer that question right now.”, he replied. 

    I protested in all of the cute and terrible ways that new lovers quarrel:  baby talk, puppy eyes, pouty lips.  The fact that none of this swayed him to tell should have been my first clue that there was an issue.  But, in my naiveté I didn’t think twice about this oddness.  While I found it unusual William didn’t want to reveal his age I couldn’t think of a reason for it. 

    However, I was persistent in finding out this information.  Every time we met over the next three weeks I would ask his age.  It was a fun game to play every time we met. Sometimes it was the opening of the evening, often the third cocktail brought out the curiosity, occasionally the questions were vague and probing, but more often blunt and blatant. 

    Finally I got an answer to my question. 

    “I’m 38,” at which point I promptly asked to see his driver’s license. 

    What you should know about William is that he has always looked younger than his age.  On top of this genetic advantage he also has a beauty regimen that would rival Joan Crawford from the beginning of Mommy Dearest. 

    I tell William that he looks much younger than his age, I thought he was around my age in the bar, and ask why he didn’t want to reveal this crucial piece of information sooner.

    “I’ve always looked younger than my age,” he said.  “And when we met I was very excited by the fact that I found someone sitting next to me in Sidetrack that was cute, interesting, and, I thought at the time, about my age.”

    “Oh…   Well, the age difference doesn’t bother me.” I said not knowing at the time that it was probably one of the biggest lies I would ever tell in our relationship.

    I realize over the next few years that it’s not so much the 15 year difference in age that is what can be frustrating for me it is the fact that we look the opposite of our age.  So, I am always the one assumed to be older and he younger.

    The first time this paradox slapped me in the face was at the Palmer House Bar before going to see a ballet.  We sat down at the bar and the bartender asked to see his ID but waved me off when I went to pull out mine.  William had a good chuckle at this while I fumed.

    As a side note, he was also the one to get hit on by the hooker at the bar as well.  To make myself feel better I chalk that one up to the fact that he paid for the drinks.

    About five years later William and I are on a vacation together.  We are taking our first cruise.  It’s an exciting time when we board the boat with references about Julie the cruise director and singing “There’s Got to Be a Morning After”.  We begin to explore the ship and get on an elevator to go up to the dining room.  As we are ascending there is a younger woman who gets on the elevator with us and strikes up a conversation. 

    “Hey, mon, is this your first time cruisin’?”  She asks with what I remember to be a very thick Jamaican accent.

    We respond that it is our first time on a cruise ship and we are very excited.

    At this point she looks right at me and says:  “It’s so nice to see a father and son cruisin’ together.”

    I hear nothing else of what she says, I press all of the buttons of the elevator and we get off on the next floor.

    These assumptions about our ages have been happening from the minute we met and will probably continue for years to come.  For example, just two weeks ago on Martin Luther King day we were thrift shopping and as we were checking out the cashier asked me if I was over 55 because they were having an additional senior discount that day.  Surprisingly, William did not fall on the floor writhing with laughter.  I asked about that later and he told me he didn’t want to see me crying in the middle of the store.  He’s a good man who knows me well.

    As we age together I’ve picked up some of his tricks, like moisturizer, and he still prefers appearing in public at dusk with the light behind him.  Luckily despite our age difference and appearance disparity I got much of what I wanted on my checklist. Maybe when we return to Sidetrack in the future to celebrate our anniversary someone will mistake us for brothers instead of father and son.  When that happens I will get back on the bus for the nursing home and I will be happy.

  • Piece of Me by Allison Shoemaker

    Britney has a really great voice, said no one ever. But watch live videos from her prime—if you’re curious, that’s the “I’m a Slave” and “Toxic” era, tucked neatly between “Oops!” and K. Fed—and what she has is swagger. She’s happy, or seems to be. She pounds, really pounds, the floor. She sweats. She owns everything and everyone, and you can see in her eyes that it feeds her. She’s a glamorous, sparkly, sexpot monster. She’s Britney, bitch. Haters to the left.

    Then that stopped. And I was deeply unprepared for what an incredible bummer it would be.

    I spent my early days as a Britney fan pretending, really hard, that I wasn’t. And it wasn’t a total lie. I was a freshman in high school when “...Baby One More Time” exploded, and even if it weren’t wired into every would-be bad-ass’s DNA to reject that which seems plastic in favor of the more punkish plastic available at Hot Topic, that song wouldn’t have been the one to do it for me.

    I just didn’t get it. Her loneliness was killing her. OK. But she confesses, she still believes. Still believes what, friend? When she’s not with him, she loses her mind. Britney, I’m with you. Give her a sign….hit her baby, one more time?

    This baby feminist was not amused.

    It’s worth noting that the cover band I’m in now includes that song in our set, and I enthusiastically taught my fellow singers all of the choreography.

    I came around, all the while fiercely pretending, even to myself, that I wasn’t a giant fan. It wasn’t the music so much, although even the early Britney catalogue is filled with gems—provided you skip the ballads, and please, please, skip the ballads. It was Britney the live performer. It was Britney the hair-flipping, gum-chewing, fedora-throwing, snake-wearing, sweaty cyborg that I loved. In short, it was my first experience with drag, and I couldn’t get enough.

    "We don't ask a whole lot from her as an entertainer,” wrote Adam Markovitz in Entertainment Weekly in a review of one of her later albums. “We'll still send her straight up the charts simply because she's Britney. She's an American institution, as deeply sacred and messed up as pro wrestling or the filibuster.”

    Pop music is special. Stupid, sure, if you think writing something two-and-a-half minutes long that’s so catchy you’ll never forget it even if you hate it is stupid. And not all pop songs are created equal (again, skip all of Britney’s ballads). But it’s larger than life, all of it, from the bubblegum perfection of something like “I Saw Her Standing There” to the violence and fear of “Smooth Criminal.” It makes us feel something, even if it’s just the tapping of our toes. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Hips move, head shakes. It catches you. It’s intoxicating. You’re captive.

    I wasn’t such a Britney fan that I kept up with her tabloid shit. Justin this, Jamie Lynn that, crazy Vegas wedding, it was all kind of a blur. But then she walked into a hair salon, weeping and smiling, and asked them to shave her head.

    They refused, so she did it herself.

    Those photos are scary. It was after the divorce, after the knee injury that changed her as a performer forever. It was before Britney was diagnosed as bipolar, before it came out that she’d struggled with postpartum depression, before the psych ward, before the conservatorship—which still stands today, by the way. Britney’s glassy-eyed, vacant, half-grinning and half-crying. She’s a nocturnal creature caught in a floodlight. She doesn’t even look scared. Just trapped. And high as hell. It made me so, so sad.

    Britney talked to the press about her mental illness for the first time ever in 2013—to the Irish Independent, of all places. “I’m not really made for this industry,” she said. “For the people. But they all kind of went away after I wouldn’t come out of the house for like two years.”

    I didn’t think of Britney when I ralphed on the steps of my boyfriend’s apartment at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning a few months later. I didn’t think of anything at all. You don’t need a scary diagnosis to lose your fucking mind.

    The details couldn’t be more typical, the opposite of Britney’s epic deconstruction and commodification by an industry she wasn’t equipped to handle. There was someone else in my boyfriend’s bed, and I knew from her hair who she was, and she was a friend. You don’t need an excuse to snap, but if I had one, it was that the boyfriend in question was a Marine, and he’d recently come back from a long and frightening deployment. It was hard for him, but it was hard for me too, and when he came back different, it scared me. A little mental illness goes a long way.

    She sat up in bed, looked through the window, and saw me. Then she laid back down, and I threw up.

    I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins, spotlight on me and I’m ready to break.

    I called a friend who arrived, to her credit and my eternal gratitude, in less than five minutes. But in those minutes, I Britneyed. It’s a deeply embarrassing memory. They were my paparazzo and I wished to god I had some expensive camera to throw at them. Instead I screamed, pounded, kicked, cursed. Somehow, no one called the cops, probably because I didn’t manage to break anything other than some blood vessels in my face. It was, as they say, a scene. And it was the beginning of the most public dissection of my life.

    After the head-shaving, Britney released an album, aptly titled Blackout. It’s not In the Zone, but it’s somehow among her better albums. People remember it mostly for her train wreck of a performance at the VMAS, in which she stumbled, confused and only sort of lip syncing, through “Gimme More.” No one expected a Britnaissance, but we all watched anyway. She was not better, and we could not turn away.

    But that album’s second single, “Piece of Me,” was different. It was written by the Swedish producer duo behind “Toxic,” and it’s a great pop tune, but beyond that, it’s armor. The pair wrote it for the pop princess, who was not equipped to say anything for herself at all, so she could swipe back. They sent it to her, she learned the lyrics on the drive to the studio, and recorded it in half an hour. It’s a giant middle finger from someone who didn’t have the words or energy to deliver it on her own. Those dudes are really, really good friends.

    I listened to that song a lot as I walked through the next year of my life, my ex and his girlfriend around every corner, every friendship tugged in two directions, every social function and class and errand a chance to be gossiped about or pitied or stared at. As his new love became determined to make my friends her friends, to show up where I’d be, I let Britney’s middle finger be my middle finger, and I’ll always be grateful to that woman and her Swedish pals for that. It was my pretend fedora and my invisible snake. It made me feel hot as hell and righteously wronged. It felt like armor.

    She’s bouncing back a bit, and amazingly, it would seem, on her own terms. Her last album wasn’t great, but it did include “Work Bitch,” the video of which features Britney standing on an island in the middle of a giant oasis as sharks swim around her, like a BOSS. No one cares that she sounds half-British in it for no reason. Also, she seems to have taken control of her Instagram account, which is now filled not with publicity stills and promo shots, but photos with her boys, videos of her weird Woody Woodpecker impression, shots of her in her pajamas on an airplane, and my favorite, a video of her serenely riding a tiny hot pink scooter up and down the street. One photo shows her in a recording studio, headphones on and a pack of menthols on the music stand. It’s bliss. She seems comfortable being an icon for the first time in a long time.

    And it’s a good thing too, because at the top of her Wikipedia page, it says “Britney redirects here.” No Spears required.

    Her Vegas show is called “Piece of Me.” I made my boyfriend promise to take me. And I don’t fucking care who knows it. She’s Britney, bitch.

  • Confession #1 by Jeremy Schaefer

    A room full of first graders typically seems like the adorably anthropomorphized engine to a perpetual motion machine.  For this particular lesson, however, our class was unnaturally still.  Each quadrant of tiny desks and plastic chairs was occupied by four frozen and terrified children.  I was sitting on my hands and staring at Mrs. Smart, probably with my lips pursed and my eyes crossed, because old photos indicate that was my focused face.

    Mrs. Smart, in my memory, was a red faced monster droning angrily like an improperly installed hot water heater exhaust vent.  She and the Janitor flanked the entrance to the classroom’s bathroom.  The janitor stared at his feet.  Probably he was uncomfortable witnessing our unapologetically cute class brought to the verge of tears.  I assumed, however, that he too was in serious trouble.  If Mrs. Smart could take away even the janitor’s recess time, than who knows what else she might be capable of.

    Finally, she turned to the janitor and aggressively invited him to speak.  He carefully explained that he had thoroughly inspected the toilet and determined that there was no leak.  Mrs. Smart let out a quick, triumphant, completely fake laugh and announced, “No leak!  If there is no leak, than one of you is peeing on the floor.  Who is it?”

    As clear as day, multiple decades later, I recall my worried epiphany, ‘Oh . . . I bet that’s me.’

    The rationale behind my hunch was simple: I was very bad at peeing.  Just like T-ball, I was all swing and no follow through.  My parents potty trained me with a fun war game that involved pretending some cheerios tossed in a toilet bowel were enemy ships and that I was the opposing air force, charged with the mission of sinking those ships with a single, steady, expertly aimed stream of urine.  Despite their best efforts, I regularly sprayed the molding with friendly fire.  Practice makes perfect, but I was no perfectionist.  As long as in the end, I no longer felt the need to go to the bathroom, I considered each trip a success.   

    Yeah, I was pretty sure that I was the culprit behind Mrs. Smart’s great piss puddle scandal.  I probably should have just confessed for the good of the whole class, but instead I took a vow of silence and waited for Mrs. Smart to collect herself.  Being angry over the persistent pools of human waste in her classroom was, I figured, only a phase. 

    Mrs. Smart, however, was committed to finding answers.  When no one confessed, she unveiled her plan.  She had devised a list that we would have to write our names on before gaining access to the bathroom.  If, upon entry to the bathroom, we noticed a mess, we were expected to report to her immediately.  At which point, presumably, Mrs. Smart would find the last name on the list and then proceed to kill a kid.

    It was a great strategy devised by a sick genius.  That’s why she was the teacher: her intelligence and knack for problem solving was unparalleled within the classroom.  But forcing children to rat on their friends?  It was brilliant, yet cruel.  She was like a disturbing mix of Nancy Drew, Joe McCarthy, The Great Mouse Detective, and that robot from Small Wonder that made me feel things I didn’t understand. 

    Thankfully, I had a counter-strategy:  I just wouldn’t go.  You can’t catch public enemy number one if he never goes number one.

    The next day I stuck to my plan for, I don’t know, maybe an hour, before I surrendered to destiny.  I signed that sick list and entered the bathroom.         

    “You can do this,” I told myself.  I imagined a bowl full of cheerios, just waiting to get peed on.  “Ready, aim— oh my god it’s happening!”

    Almost immediately, my high pressure stream veered to the right.  I frantically overcompensated, blasting the wall to my left.  Having gone too far right and then too far left, the wise move would have been to split the difference, but I did not do that.  I redirected everything straight up.  Where it came down was anybody’s guess.  The morning’s juice box was escaping me with more pressure than my limited upper body strength could contain.  When it was all done, I thought to myself, “yeah, it was definitely me.”

    I started to cry, because apparently not all of my surplus liquid was on the floor yet.  I was embarrassed and scared, but still, my parents had raised me to be honest, so I exited the bathroom and walked up to Mrs. Smart’s desk.

    “Mrs. Smart . . .” I tried to get her attention so quietly, that maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t hear me and I could say “well, at least I tried” and return to my seat.

    “Yes, Jeremy.”

    Oh no.  She heard me.  “I was just in the bathroom,” I paused to choke on my own fear before continuing, “and whoever was in before me made a mess.  I was going to tell you, but I had to go real bad.”

    She looked at her list and frowned. 

    “The only person to use the bathroom before you was Monique.”  I nodded, guiltily.  Monique was going to be in big trouble.

    Mrs. Smart, got up, and led me to the bathroom.

    “Are you trying to tell me,” she asked, “That Monique did this?”

    She was giving me one last chance to confess, but I still did not confess.  I stuck to my story, “I guess so.”  If only I had known then that girls lack the equipment to miss a toilet bowl by such a wide margin.

    Unfortunately, or perhaps thankfully, I have no idea what happened next.  My memory is a total blank after the moment I threw Monique under the yellow bus for the second time.  Since I can’t conclude with certitude, I will walk you through two possible endings.

    Ending 1:  Mrs. Smart firmly told me that I should never lie and proceeded to yell at me for blaming Monique for my mistake.  She then made me clean the bathroom, sent a note home to my humiliated parents, and caused me to forever feel most comfortable when I sit to pee.

    Ending 2:  Mrs. Smart called Monique over and publicly ridiculed her for not coming forward immediately.  She then made her clean the bathroom, sent a note home to her humiliated parents, and caused her to forever overestimate her abilities when she sits to pee.

    I can’t say which ending is the right ending, because regardless which is right, both would have been strategically repressed.  What I do know is that my memory has held onto this episode, to teach me a lesson, and despite my memory’s best teaching efforts, I continue to blame my girlfriend for all bathroom spills and misses.

  • Dear Daddy by Jonathan Mayo

    “Dear Daddy, I know that you love me,” I start out as I type this letter to my father on my huge laptop within the four walls of the room that I grew up in. The room where, for so many years, I found a sanctuary from the cruelties of the outside world. The room that I will sleep in for a limited number of summers to come. This is the summer after my freshman year of college.

    Talk about a crazy year. I moved away to school. My parents amicably divorced after 21 years. (I never really knew what they had in common anyway.) Mommy moved out of the house. Daddy’s mother in England passed away after a long battle with Dementia. My baby sister Frances got her driver’s license. And I came out as a gay man to most of my friends, my mother, and my sister. But I still haven’t come out to my father.

    It was a bit unnerving to come out to everyone else, but in reality quite simple. In fact, I never officially said I was gay, I just nonchalantly started chatting about the guys I had crushes on at school and everyone just kind of went with it. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s always been obvious. Hell, everyone else knew before I did. Before my peers and I even knew the term “gay,” I was getting called “girl” and “sissy” and then eventually “faggot” and even “gaywad.” Yes, you heard me correctly. I’m not exactly sure what a gaywad is, but I guess I was one. The taunting led to suicidal thoughts as early as the fourth grade. It’s outta control how depressed I was at such a young age. But it wasn’t easy growing up in a small redneck town in Kentucky. No one ever discussed the topic of homosexuality in the Bible Belt. And if they did it was always with a negative connotation. I didn’t have any reference point for what gay was except that it was an abomination. And that kind of stereotype was inadvertently perpetuated in my household.

    “You’re a wonderful father,” I continue typing. “And I love you very much. You always provide for our family. You always praise our accomplishments. But you don’t know how to have a conversation with me. We don’t know how to communicate. You’re always telling me to man up. You don’t agree with my gay life. You don’t like that I do theatre instead of soccer. Ballet instead of fixing cars. Those are you’re interests. Not mine. If you don’t start listening to me, you’re going to lose me. And I know neither of us want that. But you taught me to be a responsible adult, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to take responsibility for my own actions and live my own life.”

    And there it is all typed up on the screen almost ready to be printed. The main point of my letter is a tiny little line about me being gay, strategically tucked in between all my other complaints about my relationship with my father. Is this letter too cruel? Should I censor myself as I have done my whole life? Or do I finally state my truth and be the man Daddy taught me to be?

    But Daddy’s lessons could be contradictory at times. He instilled in me the value of travelling. He always told my sister and me to see the world. That’s how we grow. You see, Daddy is a proper British man—progressive in thought, but antiquated in ritual. Though he was spouting the importance of immersing ourselves in new cultures, he was also degrading other lifestyles right in front of me.

    I don’t think he realized he was doing it even at dinner. It was always tradition for our family to sit in the living room and watch TV while we ate. This was our time together. Sometimes we’d watch the Golden Girls or Nick at Night. Sometimes we’d watch Ellen, the sitcom that Ellen Degeneres starred in during the 90s. She was the first person that I’d ever really seen in the media who came out as gay. Hell, the first person I’d ever seen anywhere who was gay. But once she did announce that she was a lesbian, things changed.

    “Ellen Degeneres is so funny,” I said one day from my spot on the floor by the coffee table.

    “You mean Ellen Degenerate,” Daddy responded from his throne on the couch. How could my father say that? How could he be just like my peers? That’s when I knew I had to hide myself even from myself. I rationalized any and every thought that was even remotely gay after that. I would make excuses every time I thought about the boys on my swim team. I didn’t want their bodies. I just wanted to have their bodies, right? Like, I was jealous of their physiques?

    But there comes a point when the truth must prevail. It’s time to be honest with Daddy. I’ve already told Mommy, who’s a hillbilly from West Virginia which is also a land plagued with tradition. She took the news pretty well, so it’s only fair that I share the truth with Daddy too. This is just the only way I know how to do it.

    So I grab an envelope from the kitchen junk drawer, print out the letter, delete it from my desktop, place it under Daddy’s pillow, kiss him goodbye as he walks in from work, and I drive 14 hours to the Outer Banks to visit my friends at their summer stock theatre job. Probably not the best means of communication, but I didn’t want Daddy to find the letter until I was on the road. Perhaps I’m actually going against his teachings by not confronting him directly. Perhaps I’m not being fair, but it’s done now. And I’m…Freaking. Out!  

    As I drive my silver Taurus to the coast and essentially out of the closet, I realize that these four doors of my car have recently replaced the four walls of my room. I have a new sanctuary and a newfound confidence. It’s time to express my feelings to my first boy crush. He’s artistic and sweet and he’s older by at least three years. His smile is so bright especially in contrast to his dark hair and his skin which glows orange from his frequent visits to the tanning bed. I practice my speech in the rearview mirror over and over as Delilah plays encouragingly on the radio in the background.

    “Please go to voicemail. Please go to voicemail,” I beg as the dial tone rings. Thankfully the universe answers my prayers as his voicemail picks up. This phone call will jettison me even further out of the closet. But right now I’m exhausted from the drive and my recent slew of confessions. As the night settles in, I seek respite and make a pit stop at my aunt’s house in West Virginia. I try to get some sleep with everything on my mind and the next morning we do breakfast and then I hit the road again.

    As the sun rises, so does my anxiety. What the fuck have I done? I’ve come out to Daddy in a shitty letter and professed my love to my crush in a shitty voicemail. And why the fuck have neither of them responded? It’s the next day! Are they upset? Freaked out? Am I gonna lose a friend? Lose my father? Lose my home? I need a drink.

    Finally I reach my destination and my friends welcome me with beautifully tanned open arms (that make me jealous). I explain my situation and the next thing I know, I’m in the party cabin at this theatre in the woods by the beach. I get embarrassingly stoned for my first time (but that’s a whole other story). Then I go skinny dipping for my first time with a bunch of strangers under the moonlight (but that’s also another story for another time). I return to my friend’s cabin (with my clothes on) and discover a text from my crush. I’ve had a night full of firsts. Could this be my first boyfriend? Uh no. Suddenly, in the middle of my rejection text—my retextion if you will—Daddy’s number pops up. He’s finally calling me. My friend steps into the room. I answer the phone and Daddy tells me he’s found my letter and he wants to talk about it when I get back home. Well, at least I still have a home to go back to.

    When the weekend ends, I make the 14-hour trek back home, I’m so focused on the pending conversation with Daddy that I almost run out of gas on the West Virginia Turnpike amid the foothills of Appalachia. I have no cell phone service and there’s a house that looks like it’s straight out of the movie Misery. That’s all I need is to die after my long journey of self-discovery just before I meet with my father. Thankfully I find the only gas station within miles, fuel up, and head home to my father.

    As we stand in the kitchen leaning against the counter, Daddy tells me that he doesn’t agree with my new lifestyle but he will always love me. And then he hugs me. This roller coaster year seems to have brought my family closer together than ever before. It’s amazing what a couple of major milestones has done to bond us. And now Daddy and I are finally communicating. And he’s still teaching me about being a man as I notice the tears well up in his eyes for the first time in my life.

  • Nonreciprocal Flaccid Paralysis By Dennis Frymire

    Let me start with three unpleasant words that sound even more unpleasant when you string them together.

    Nonreciprocal.

    Flaccid.

    Paralysis.

    Hang on to those; we’ll come back to them later.

    So Betsy and I got married three months ago. When I Betsy and I started dating, there was a story I had to share about myself. Now, I didn’t share this story right away. It came after I told the story of my four-year marriage that ended with a blowout worthy of a Jerry Springer episode. And it was after I admitted that even though I can fool you for a while, you’re eventually going to figure out I’m just a dumb redneck from Southern Illinois. This story came about two or three months in, after we started spending the night together on a regular basis. That’s when I told her about the time I lived with a previous girlfriend, and the night I woke up to a burglar in our home.

    So a few years ago, Heather and I, after having only dated three months, moved in together. Actually, I should say I moved in with Heather . . . and Howard, and Duncan, her two Siamese cats, in their Roscoe Village apartment. We had only been living together for a couple of weeks the night of the incident. I woke up lying on my side facing at Heather. She was on her back sound asleep. The clock on her nightstand read 3:00 a.m. It was just a few seconds before I realized that what woke me up was the noises of someone ransacking our living room.

    I think everyone imagines this scenario at least once, if not several times, in their lives. You wake up in the middle of the night; there’s an intruder in your home. You and your loved ones are in danger. What do you do? After considering it only a moment, I decided I was going to confront him. I decided I was going to do this without waking Heather up first. I was afraid she would freak out, start screaming, and the intruder would come to the bedroom and kill us both.

    Our queen-size bed was pushed all the way to the wall on my side. I quietly slid down and off the end of the bed, and ducked out of the bedroom into the adjacent kitchen. The living room was at the other end of the hallway. So now I’m standing in the kitchen listening to this intruder wreck our living room. I need a plan.

    I decide I’m going to charge the living room as fast as I can, screaming like a banshee, hoping that my howling 250 pounds barreling down the hallway will startle the burglar, and he’ll just drop our stuff and flee. There is absolutely nothing that can go wrong with this plan.

    I take a moment, summon my courage, and then I scream the only sensible thing one can scream in such a situation.

    Motherfuckeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!

    I charge the living room. Time stands still. A ten-foot run turns into a hundred meter dash. I’m running, and I’m yelling, and I finally get to the living room, and not only have I not scared the intruder away, but he is standing at the end of the hallway.

    Waiting for me.

    He doesn’t have a weapon. He’s not in any kind of defensive stance. He just stands there with an eerie calm not unlike Michael Myers in the Halloween movies. His face is blank, expressionless. It’s almost as if he doesn’t have a face. He’s not wearing a shirt. This is apparent because he is so tall, his bare chest is right in my line of sight. I am terrified out of my mind, but I’m here, and there’s no turning back now, so I rear back with my left fist – which even in that split second, I find peculiar since I’m right-handed – and I punch.

    Nonreciprocal.

    Flaccid.

    Paralysis.

    That may sound like an unfortunate thing you treat with a little blue pill, but it’s actually a good thing: It’s the neural function that immobilizes your body while you’re dreaming. Hormones and other chemicals work together to paralyze your skeletal muscles so you don’t act out what’s going on inside your head. The thing I have to share about myself at the start of a relationship is that often times, my nonreciprocal flaccid paralysis state doesn’t quite work.

    It has always sort of been this way. As a child, I would often make my way to mom’s bedside in my sleep, babbling incoherently, with no memory of it the next morning. When I was a teenager, I knocked my prized stereo to the floor with a roundhouse kick executed from my bed.

    I’ve startled awake almost every woman I’ve shared a bed with by bear-hugging them suddenly in my sleep, the apparent occupational hazard that comes with being my little spoon. One night with Debbie, I dreamed I was playing baseball, and when I dove into second base, I dove clear out of the bed. With Marsha, I dreamed I was riding a motorcycle, and as I approached her in my dream, I rolled over in bed, presented her my bare ass and said, “Hop on.” Another night with Marsha, I explained to her in my sleep the awesomeness that is William Shatner’s spoken word version of Elton John’s Rocket Man, performed live at some awards show in the 70s, viewable on YouTube.

    “And then there are two of him, and one is drunk and dancing. ‘And I’m a rocket man. Rocket Man.’”

    But the worst incident, the story I’ve had to share at the start of my relationships ever since was the night I dreamed I took a swing at a burglar, and while still actually lying asleep on my right side in bed, punched my girlfriend square in the face.

    Heather woke up screaming. I woke up screaming. Before I even opened my eyes, I knew exactly what I had done.

    “Oh, my God. Honey! I’m so sorry! No, it’s okay! It’s just me!”

    After the first yelp of shock and pain, Heather covered her face with her hands, and rolled into the fetal position away from me. Like me, she was a very anxious person, and even prone to the occasional panic attack, and she was going full scale into one. I tried to calm her down, but every attempt to touch her just made her curl harder into the ball she had rolled herself into.

    I jumped out of bed and flipped on the overhead light. I stopped trying to touch her, and just sat at the end of the bed, saying over and over again that it was just me, it was an accident, I had a nightmare, I dreamed I was punching someone who had broken in. Even as her sobs started to lessen, she was reluctant to pull her hands from her face. When I was finally able to get her hands away, and look her in the face and apologize and assure her everything was going to be okay, I could see that her left eye was starting to swell.

    I went into the kitchen to get her some ice, but wound up using a bag of frozen peas. As I was finding a washcloth to wrap around it, I stopped cold when I realized there actually was a commotion coming from the living room.

    It was Howard and Duncan chasing each other around in circles. It occurred to me this was what probably triggered my dream to begin with.

    I got the impromptu ice pack on Heather’s face. She came down from her panic attack. I told her my nightmare in detail. We started joking about how crazy this was, and how she might have to concoct a better story lest she sound like a battered woman making excuses for her abusive boyfriend. After about an hour, I asked her if she thought she could go back to sleep. She said she thought so. With that, I stood, grabbed my pillow, and began to grab a spare blanket from the dresser.

    “What are you doing?” she asked.

    “I’m going to go sleep in the living room,” I said.

    “Oh, Dennis, no. You’re overreacting. You don’t have to do that.”

    “Honey,” I said. “I just punched you in the face. I get to spend the rest of the night on the couch.

    So three months ago, I got married. Somehow, Betsy and I have managed to survive three years sharing only a full-size bed. Yes, she’s put up with her share of sleepy bear hugs, and a handful of incidents of me flailing, gasping, or shouting in the middle of the night. There was even one time a few months ago where my night of fitful sleep meant she hardly slept at all – I snored all night, shoved my elbow in her face, and even threw a pillow at her. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that just a few days after we took our vows, we walked into the bed store in our neighborhood and purchased a Posturepedic king-size bed. It looks cartoonishly huge in our Lincoln Square bedroom. But even two months later, we crawl into bed at night and take a moment to reflect on what a goddamn revelation and relationship saver it is.

    We’ve never been further apart, and closer together.

  • Gifts by Margaret A. Dunn

    I bought my mother a vibrator.

    It’s not what you think.

    Let me set the scene, I was twenty-five, so fresh out of college I still had that new B.F.A smell clinging to my clothes. I had recently been dumped by the love-of-my-life-de-jour, a hippie who left me for a woman already 4 months pregnant with some other redneck’s kid. Classy. I had moved to Seattle to intern with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and found a whole new world of women, intellectual women, activist women, women who dared to picket Monsanto and refused to shave their legs. It was under the brave, if somewhat fuzzy, tutelage of these warriors that I decided that the time had come to take back my own orgasm. I wanted to be one of those self-assured hippies who spoke about her vagina the same way Christians spoke about Jesus. Salvation at hand.

    So, armed with bravado and my own sense of Xena-like empowerment, I went to Toys in Babeland, a lesbian owned and operated sex store on Capitol Hill that touted itself as the “female-centric” sex-toy store of choice. Within moments of arriving, I found myself completely overwhelmed. A kind, but entirely too-informed lesbian toured me around the shop, giving me pointers on intensity, wattage and waterproofing. After the most informative twenty minutes of my young life, I muttered something lame about not wanting to go overboard and promptly chose the most innocuous vibrator in the shop. Plain, simple, it could have easily been sold in the back of Cosmo as a “neck massager”. Red faced and somewhat shaken in my quest for feminist empowerment, I quickly paid for my purchase and drove home to test-drive my new toy.

    Oh.

    My.

    God.

    AMAZING!!! Was this what sex was supposed to feel like? I had been doing it all wrong for years!!! I remember putting the toy down and quickly walking away from it. Surely something that felt that good was dangerous. Eyeing it from across the room like an addict, wondering if it were possible to be hooked on something powered by AA batteries after just one hit. I felt fantastic. Empowered by my own body. I hadn’t anticipated how liberated I would feel. I wanted to shout my orgasm from the rooftops. Get a bill passed in Congress that would provide vibrators to every woman in the world. I wanted to throw The Rabbit like parade candy to the throngs of women who still had not experienced what I had only just realized: the female orgasm is power.

    In the midst of all this thrilling self-discovery, I found myself calling home one night and telling my mother all about my new adventures. It spilled out in a rush of breathless “holy-crap-mom-this-is-amazing-you-have-to-try-it!”

    I should go back.

    That was the year my mother’s cancer had come back. She was this amazing, beautiful, brilliant woman who was a pioneer for human rights and a respected educator and principal. She was hilarious. She was brave. She was my best friend.

    This was her second bout with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She had been diagnosed about a year after my father had come out of the closet. She had found his suicide to-be note and confronted him when he came home from work. They were best friends. True partners in life. When she figured out he was a raving homosexual, she threw them both into therapy and said nothing to anyone for a solid year. Then, a day after my 19th birthday, at 6:30pm my father asked me to go for a drive and told me he was gay.

    Did I mention I was a theatre major at the time?

    Did I also mention that my father had once made my sister and I learn an Oklahoma medley complete with choreography?

    Yeah, I already knew he was gay.

    So in the months and years following her diagnosis and his coming-out party, my parents slowly fought their way to a place of peace for both of them. They were best friends, addressing her health and his excommunication from the Mormon Church together. As a team. She defended him to their bewildered friends and family, standing by him when her parents told her to “get that faggot out of the house”. And he never left her side, postponing their divorce until she had fully recovered from cancer, (a day that never actually happened but was always on the horizon as a “someday” plan). She attended lectures and symposiums with him that encouraged the Mormon Church to rethink its stance on homosexuality, speaking out against homophobia and discrimination against the LGBT population. He stood behind her decision to continue her work as a high school principal while undergoing brutal chemotherapy, literally carrying her up and down the two flights of stairs to her office every day for months as they refused to give up their fight for a better life for all of us.

    I had always admired my parents for their commitment to our family and each other. They were true soul-mates, best friends indeed. However, my young heart broke for my mother when she told me that she had had sex eleven times in her life and that sex was, and I quote, “nice, but nothing to get worked up over”. My father had loved her the best way he could as a gay man. He loved her, he respected her but he had completely failed her as a lover. Her only lover. EVER. My mother had been a nice Mormon girl when she met the nice Mormon boy who was kind and funny and athletic. The boy who loved the arts as much as she did. Nowadays it seems obvious that he was a gay man, but back then they told people that being gay was a phase, something to grow out of, something to “get over’. They had come together with the best information given at the time, she thought he was straight and he thought he could make himself straight. What could have gone wrong?

    Indeed.

    Ok, so back to the vibrator.

    SO, armed with my newfound power of female sexuality, I told my mother about my new plan to own my orgasm and to reclaim my body from the male patriarchy. After a few minutes of shocked laughter, my mother began to ask me questions. I could feel her curiosity through the phone lines and a thought began to formulate in the back of my mind.

    “So Mom,” I said casually, my cheeks already pink from the scandal of discussing orgasms with my still-very-Mormon mother. “Would you ever consider using a toy?”

    There was a silence on the other end followed by a startled laugh.

    “Oh Margaret, really.”

    I could feel her starting to dismiss the idea out of hand, but I was young and daring and flushed with my newfound power of multiple orgasms. “Well you know Mom, a LOT of women use them now. They even had an episode of Sex and The City about it.”

    “Really.” She said it as a question. Almost like an invitation to continue, so I did.

    “Oh yeah Mom. Because, you know, women’s orgasms are not FOR men. They are for us! And we should be free to enjoy our own bodies. To really KNOW them, you know?”

    My mother, the warrior, the feminist, the brilliant, elegant standard to which I now compare myself and every women. My mother said to me, in a near wistful tone, “Well, that’s wonderful for today’s young woman. I think that is great honey. You SHOULD love your body. Every woman should.”

    That did it. The thought that my amazing, beautiful, hilarious mother had been deprived of orgasms her entire life broke down any barrier of propriety that growing up a conservative Mormon girl had instilled within me. I wanted her to feel the same love from the universe that I felt when I had brought myself to orgasm. I wanted her to feel beautiful and special. So I made a wild decision right then and there.

    “Mom,” I heard myself say in a confident voice that I barely recognized. “I am buying you a vibrator.”

    I assured her that it would be nothing too crazy and that I would send it to her in a specially marked package so that no one else would see it. Ignoring her, “oh sweetie that is really not necessary” placations, I hung up the phone with a new mission.

    So back to Capitol Hill I went. I marched right back into Babes in Toyland, winked confidently at the overly-informed lesbian of my first venture there and bought a second, innocuous vibrator for my Mormon mother.

    I took it home. Wrapped it in plain brown wrapping. Clearly marked the package for my mother’s eyes only and then sent it off with a handwritten card, gourmet Seattle chocolates and a pack of AA batteries. I was on a mission to help my mother by any means necessary. I just knew that if she could see her body as the amazing embodiment of feminine power, if she could take pleasure from the body that was causing her so much pain, it would help her. It had to.

    So a few weeks later, I get a phone call from home. My father was on the other end of the line, sounding amused.

    “What’s up Dad?”

    “Well Allison, tell your daughter.”

    I heard my mother start to laugh.

    “What’s going on Mom?”

    “Oh honey it’s nothing. Your father is just teasing me.”

    “What happened?”

    “Oh . . . well. . . I just. . Well, I used my. ..Toy.” Her voice dropping on toy with guilty giggle.

    “OH! Well, what did you think Mom?”

    “Oh my.”

    I smiled to myself. Score one for the female orgasm.

    . . . .

    One year later, she was dead.

    After the funeral, I found myself going through her drawers one afternoon. Pausing to smell her perfume or run my fingers over her silk scarves. Picking up one scarf, it felt unusually heavy and I unraveled it to find the vibrator. For a moment, a fury ran through me. I grabbed the toy angrily and went to throw it away. “You failed her” I muttered through clenched teeth. “You were supposed to make her better!” I shouted to no one, shaking the toy like an unwanted baby. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Until a thought made my spine straighten. This toy did not represent failure.

    This toy was a symbol of hope.

    My hope for my mother. Her hope for herself. The collective hope of all of us for lives free from illness or pain.

    My mother was a warrior. She fought for peace. She fought for love. And when she let her crazy daughter send her a sex toy, she fought for herself.

    It was her greatest gift to me.

    And all I got her was a vibrator.

  • Fear Itself by Kestutis Nakas

    I’m in hell. I really can’t wish this away. I’m in Soviet Occupied Lithuania. It’s the summer of 1985. I came here for a six week language and culture course at Vilnius University. And even though I’m flashing back now as I speak, I can’t, in 1985, flash forward and say something like, “Don’t worry, they’re just hassling you. It’s going to be okay.” Here, now, in 1985, “okay” is not possible. People in our group have been messed with in strange ways. Like when they collected our passports:

    “We’re required to take them to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, you’ll get them back in a few days.” But when they passed them back, one was missing.

    “Where’s my passport?”, the young woman asked.

    “I don’t know. Did you give it to us?”

    “Yes.”

    “It’s not here. You can’t leave the country without a passport.”

    “I gave it to you with everyone else. You counted them. Remember?”

    “No. I gave back all the ones we had. Go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Tell them you lost your passport.”

    “I didn’t lose it. You lost it.”

    “We don’t lose important things like passports. Go to the Ministry and explain what you did. They are the only ones who can help you at this point.”

    This happened at the beginning of the six-week language and culture course and I was glad it wasn’t happening to me. I lost myself in the program: hard language classes in which I was by far the worst student, and tours of the countryside with a vodka-bribed bus driver at the wheel. There were castle hills, storks, songs and state-regulated terror. Maybe instilling fear is just “terror-light” by today’s standards. But when you’re on the receiving end, you‘re not really thinking globally. It’s me, me, me.

    So now I’m in hell. I’ve got no wallet. No cash. No credit card. I’m screwed. What happened?

    The other night I returned drunk to my dormitory past curfew. I’d done this before. But this time something was different. The lights were off in the downstairs lobby. The door was unlocked and I stepped into the darkness. If I could find my way up the stairs I ‘d be okay. I paused to let my eyes adjust. A woman shrieked just as someone grabbed my arm and scraped my forearm hard against the sharp corner of a brick wall. Strong hands pushed me up the stairs. I crumpled. My hand reflexively reached for my back pocket where I kept my wallet. The wallet was gone. I scrambled up the stairs, fished my dorm room key out of my front pocket and went into my room. I sat on my bed and felt my head swirl in a whirlpool of alcohol and adrenaline. What the fuck is going on?

    I pressed my palm into the gash of my bleeding arm, went back outside my room and ran down the hall screaming. No response. I went back to my room and laid myself down. The room spun above me. Why did I get so drunk? What are they doing to me? I must have slept because I woke up in a cold grey dawn. My head hurt.

    All my money was in that wallet , along with my American Express card and the key to my suitcase, which was in a special pocket in my wallet. I’ll bet that’s what they want. It must have been the Sauguma. Literally, “Sauguma” just means “security”. But it’s the Lithuanian-language variant of “KGB”. It is the spying, lying, thieving, murdering secret police in this occupied, forgotten country. The word strikes fear into the heart. Anyone can feel its heat. But why do they want to fuck with me? I’m funny. I’m nice. I’m not up to anything TOO seditious.

    Yes, I am out every night drinking. Yes, I cut gleefully through the night, evading my tail, twisting and turning through courtyards into ancient alleyways headed for secret rendezvous. But that’s romance, not revolution. I like to live.

    But now I sit on the concrete bench outside my dorm while everybody sleeps. Will I ever get out of here? I’ve still got my passport and plane ticket. But clearly, they can take those things anytime they want. They can do anything they want to anyone. This is what it means when the state controls the terror. I get it. I stack up reasons why I’ll be OK . I’m an American. I’m a writer and actor living in New York. I’m not famous but they don’t know that. I might write about all of this. That’s a good reason for letting me out. Or for making me disappear. That does happen. OK that’s way too paranoid. All I want is to go home, but will I? Can I?

    It’s crazy but I feel like I’m even being watched right now, way out at this dorm complex in the piney woods at the edge of Vilnius. I feel eyes burning into the back of my booze-soaked head. I turn around, and there, in the lowest window of the dorm, stands a ghostly, dark-haired girl of maybe twenty. She’ watching me. She’s talking on the phone while holding the window curtain open. She sees me see her and lets the curtain drop robotically.

    Later, when I tell my group leader what happened, he says I need to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He makes an appointment, then takes me there. “That’s it. Just go in there.” He points at it but doesn’t even cross the street with me, as if that would be entering no man’s land. I go to the door, knock, and it opens.

    I’m shown into a luxurious, wood-paneled room and told to wait. It feels like forever. Are they watching me sweat? Finally, a well dressed man comes in and introduces himself. By “well-dressed” I mean it’s the kind of stiff blazer ensemble you might see in a JC Penney circular. But neat. Clean. Much nicer than average for this country. “You can speak English to me,” he says. All he needs is a furry white cat to be the perfect James Bond villain.

    “Your English is very good.” I say.

    “I worked in England for many years. In the Soviet embassy. “

    “Oh, I see.”

    “Now please, sit down. Would you like some tea? “An old woman, a mociute, comes in with a good, strong cup of tea. I need this tea. My head hurts. Oh, how it hurts. But I can’t think about that.

    “Now please explain what happened.”

    “I was coming home late and I was drunk. It was dark in the entryway and when I came in, I was attacked. They tore my arm against the corner of a wall and took my wallet. ”

    “I see.” He takes a deep breath and smiles a little smile. “Lithuania is a nice country. But sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes we can help. And sometimes things just get worse.” He takes a pause, breathes, shifts gears.

    “I wouldn’t worry about your wallet. I have a feeling someone will find it. “

    “I’m not so worried about the wallet itself. It’s what was in it.”

    What was in it?”

    “My American Express card. What if someone uses it? I have no way of calling the credit card company. ”

    “I would not worry about this. Nobody here knows what that is. And there is no place to use it.”

    “I still have to call American Express”.

    “Let’s talk about something else. Are you enjoying your trip? “

    “I was, I guess.”

    “Is there anywhere in Lithuania you would like to go?”

    “Everybody says the beach at Palanga is nice. I would like to see that.”

    “This can be arranged. Where else?”

    “Maybe my Tevishlke, over by Kamaijai.“ Your “Tevishke” is your ancestral village..

    “This, too, can be arranged. But we should talk. Get to know one another. Would you like to have dinner with me at my house? Perhaps you’d like to meet my daughter? She speaks English.”

    “No thanks, that’s OK. I’m pretty busy visiting my relatives when I don’t have classes.”

    The man got around to talking about Lithuanians in the diaspora. He asked me about one guy in particular. A theatre guy like me, living in New York.

    “Do you know him?”

    “Yes, he is a great guy. You should put on one of his plays.”

    “What about one of your plays?”

    “You wouldn’t like my plays.”

    So he dropped that subject but went on to name more names of Lithuanians living in the US. He wanted to know about them. I told him nothing. I didn’t know anyone he mentioned. I told him that but he probably thought I was lying. I wasn’t. I’m really bad at lying.

    “I really have to go. I have to go…play tennis.” That was a lie, badly told. But I had to get out of there. Would he try to stop me? I must have looked like a scared rabbit.

    “Alright, yes, you can go. Please keep in touch. And don’t worry about that wallet . I think you will get it back.”

    “Thanks, I would appreciate that.”

    “And if you want to stop your credit card, do it by telegram. It’s the best way.”

    “Oh, thanks.”

    I got out of there quick. I wish I could paint a more heroic picture of myself. But at least I was happy I hadn’t traded information for the freedom to travel outside Vilnius. Another member of my group did. No judgments, fear does crazy things to all of us.

    In the end, I got my wallet back, complete with American Express card and cash. All that was missing was my suitcase key, which had been cut out of its secret compartment. The dorm monitor said, “Some children were playing in the woods and found it there.“ But it had been raining for a week and the wallet was dry. All’s well, right? But they sure managed to scare the crap out of me.

    Fear. That’s what made the Soviet boat float. About ten days before I left Lithuania, I heard a woman say, “I’m just not going to be afraid anymore. What can they do to me? Kill me? Fine. It’s better than living in fear.” The next day, I heard another Lithuanian say the exact same thing. With each passing day I heard more and more people say that. And not too long after I left, the first open meeting of the new independence movement took place under a statue of Adam Mickevicius, the great Polish poet who considered Lithuania his fatherland.

     

    Today, Lithuania is free again. But Russia wants it back and often rattles its sabre along the border. And somewhere in Ukraine, near the Russian border a paramilitary thug might be spending Euros or Australian dollars looted from a shot down Malaysian airliner. What did he think as he rifled through the iPads, purses, and toys among the corpses in the wreckage he was complicit in causing? Was it “I deserve this.”? Did it ever dawn on him that these murdered foreigners came from a place where folks live securely, in peace and prosperity, without fear of the state?

     

    I’m so glad I’m living in the USA. I don’t fear my government. I sure hope I never do. God knows it’s not perfect. But I’m really glad I don’ t have to live in hell.

  • A Tale of Two Drinks by Eileen Dougharty

    It was December 25th at a Marriott or a Sheraton or a Hilton or a Hyatt somewhere in America. I was drinking a bourbon on the rocks and staring at the two hotel bar televisions. One eye on some football, the other on the TBS marathon of A Christmas Story. The bar was quiet, as hotels tend to be on Christmas, which was fine as I wasn’t looking for holiday small talk.

    She walked in and took the seat next to me, which seemed odd as almost every other seat in the bar was open. Twenty something, dressed in a fur trimmed parka with long blonde hair wet from the snow, her eyes seemed troubled at first glance. She settled in and ordered a Sam Adams and joined me in staring at the TV.

    “What’s the score?” she asked.

    “I don’t know,” I shrugged. “You must be watching Ralphie trying to shoot his eye out.”

    “That I am."

    After a moment or two of awkward silence, I felt compelled to ask, “So, what brings you here for a yuletide cheer in the form of a Christmas beer?”

    “Had to get out of my house,” she said. “I live about two miles away, and my in laws are driving me crazy. We ran out of butter and I jumped at the chance to catch a break from them. I was going to get high in my car, but it just seemed too depressing. I thought having a drink with other people might help, and I knew the hotel would be open.”

    “So what’s wrong at your house?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer.

    “Oh nothing serious, really, just the usual power struggle. My mother-in-law’s a control freak bitch that doesn’t think I can raise my own daughter. My husband doesn’t say shit to her, then we fight about it for a week after they leave.”

    “Sounds like a drag.”

    She swiveled her chair to face me, causing me to the do the same.“You married? Have kids?”

    “Nope. I’ve lived with the same guy for about twelve years, so it’s kinda like being married. No kids, though.”

    “Where’s he? Why aren’t you spending Christmas with him?”

    “He’s in Colorado with his family,” I told her.

    “That sucks. You shouldn’t be in a hotel on Christmas. You should be with your man.”

    I smirked. “Look who’s talking.”

    “But if you’ve been together twelve years, you must be happy.”

    “I could be in Colorado right now, but I’m here. I told him I had to work.”

    “Did you have to work?”

    “No.”

    “Did you guys have a fight?”

    “No. We don’t fight about anything.”

    “Wow. What’s your secret?”

    “Not talking.”

    She gave me a quizzical look and turned back towards the bar.

    But by then, she had me hooked. “Okay, tell me why you’re running away from Christmas dinner. You clearly have something to say or you’d being getting high in your car. What’s the deal?”

    “Like I said, my mother in law just starts a bunch of shit. She thinks I should be a stay at home mom, ‘cause she was. My husband won’t stand up to her, and I hate it.”

    “But your husband’s okay with you having a job?”

    “Yeah, I guess. I mean, we need the money no matter what. But he doesn’t like me doing my own thing or having my own life. And I just don’t want to teach my daughter to depend on a man, you know?”

    I nodded and signaled the bartender to get us another round.

    She continued, “I got pregnant after we’d been together only a few months. I love my husband, but I’m not sure he’s like my soul mate or whatever. You know what I mean? I mean, how do you know who’s right for you? That’s what I need to know.”

    “That’s a complicated question. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that.”

    “As someone who’s been with someone a long time, I ask that you give it a try. Give me some suggestions about how can deal with all this, at least through Christmas.”

    “I suggest you get high in your car.”

    She smiled and shifted in her chair. “Okay, fair enough. But what do you think makes a relationship work?”

    “I will point out that you’re talking to someone who’s not with their boyfriend on Christmas. Let the record reflect that before you start listening to me.”

    “Duly noted.” She took a long pull off her second beer.

    “I guess once the initial infatuation wears off, it’s about communicating and being on the same page with what you want out of life, I guess.”

    “Communicating? I thought you said you and your boyfriend don’t talk.”

    “I also told you not to listen to me.”

    She laughed, “You’re right, you did.” She continued to stare at me like I wasn’t finished, so I kept talking.

    “I don’t know, there’s something intangible that has to be present as well…it’s hard to explain. There’s some sort of energy or spark or something between two people that needs to be mutual. You know like when you meet someone and they instantly make sense to you, even though there’s no real reason why they should, they just do? Like you trust them right away, in some bizarre leap of faith? Does that make any sense at all?”

    She nodded. “Yeah. Kinda like when you hear a song on the radio for the first time and by the time it gets to the chorus, you know you want to hear it, like, ten more times.”

    “Exactly. Or when you see a piece of art or read a poem and it makes you slam your fist on the table with excitement. I don’t know what the word is for that, but it needs to be there. When you see that other person, it’s got to be there.”

    She sipped her beer, looking up to the ceiling. She pursed her lips slowly and said, “Magic. That’s the closest word I can think of.”

    “Well, I suppose that could be what I’m getting at. Magic.”

    She took her phone out of pocket, and shook her head, closing her eyes. “I gotta go. They're blowing up my shit up looking for me, although they probably just want the butter. Merry Christmas, it was nice talking to you.” She threw down a twenty and waved goodbye, disappearing into the night.

    I signaled the bartender to bring my bill as well. After all, it was just another Tuesday for me, time to get some sleep. And I should probably quit talking shit, considering I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that spark, the last time I slammed my fist with excitement over anything or anyone.

    Fishing through my pocket for my room key as I settled into the elevator, the doors were about to close when a small, wrinkled hand came between them with a bang. The doors parted and in walked a guy who appeared to be pushing 90, about 5’ 6”, in a full tuxedo. He smiled and looked me over from head to toe after he pushed the button for his floor.

    “You here for the magician’s convention tomorrow?” he asked.

    I laughed, my cheeks flushed from the bourbon. “No, I am not. Why, you wanna see me pull a rabbit out of my hat?”

    “You know I do, Toots,” he replied. “You know I do.”