Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

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bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l

 

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Pietà

It is that time of the school year when I pull into the parking lot and have to wipe my tears with a crumpled receipt from my purse because I ran out of tissues months ago. But we are not done. The finish line looms, and if I squint I can see my summer like a mirage in the distance. Maybe my post-semester oasis is a murky watering hole that I must share with a camel, or perhaps it is a spot next to a sparkling turquoise pool where I will tip my sunglasses down and stare up at a waiter in pressed white shorts to order a strawberry daiquiri. Whatever comes next, I know that right now I need to breathe deep and close my eyes and remember why I am still here. And get out of the car. And stop wearing mascara.

I wrote the following piece as a spoken word poem as part of a college-level English course and performed it alongside a group of students, who read their own inspired poems, in our school cafeteria.

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I never thought I would be a teacher, especially in a high school. But here I am. I walk in the building—the beat of my heels coming down the hall are like a drum roll. Then I step into class and start the show—a show that is attended by people who do not want to be here. They don’t throw tomatoes at me or march out in a calculated exodus, although that would at least show some effort, some slight turn away from apathy, but instead they look at their phones or whisper with each other while I stand before them and try to do my job.

But when I was in high school I did not want to be there either. I had better things to do, like smoking cigarettes in the parking lot or sitting in a booth across from my best friend at McDonalds eating French fries right out the bag and just talking, our words dancing back and forth across the table in a frenzy of laughter and Oh. My. Gods.

I skipped class, feeling the adrenaline as I made it past the gates at the end of the parking area, and then the rush of freedom as the high school—looming large at the top of the hill—faded in my rearview mirror. I remember being called to the office, the quiet of the halls amplifying the sound of my sneakers squeaking on the waxed floor. I turned the corner after entering the main office and saw my mother sitting in a chair across from the vice principal’s desk. Oh shit.

But then every once in awhile I forgot I hated to be in a classroom, I forgot about the cinder block walls. And the bells that told us when to move, like cattle from classroom to classroom. I had a humanities class and we looked at slides of artwork and architecture from a time when I pictured everyone wearing togas and eating giant turkey legs. Sometimes it drained the life from me, like when we had to learn about different types of columns. And the room was dark and perfect for sleeping. We didn’t have phones, so we had to find another way to show our disinterest, and to declare ourselves: Just not that into you. As someone who generally refuses to declare lines between generations, to call our antiquated ways superior, and as someone who has no interest in moving backwards and cannot seem to understand what hopes exists in Again, I take some pride in the fact that we were experts at apathy. We chose to be unconscious, faces on a hard desk, drool on the graphite marks from ancestral students leaving black shadows on our cheeks. No snap chat can compete with that level of indifference.

But then she talked about Michelangelo. He believed that his sculptures were already there. They were trapped in the marble and his job as the artist was to set them free. Then she showed the Pietà on the projector in the front of the classroom. Mary holding the limp body of Jesus, folds of fabric made from hard rock cascading down from her lap. The hair stood up on my arms. Jesus’s anklebone, the tendons in his legs, and that fabric all from a block of marble. He just got rid of the negative space.

And now I stand in front of a class of students five days a week and try to get them to lift their heads up and be amazed—to find their Pietà. I know that my job is to get rid of the negative space. Break down the walls they have been building since kindergarten, maybe even preschool, walls built with “I don’t want to be heres” and “When am I going to use thises?” All those years convincing them that school is not cool, hardening them and trapping them inside.

My chisel comes in the form of treating them like adults and letting them write about what they know, even if it is another story about dirt bikes or about the first time in the cab of his truck, and I write “TMI! TMI! TMI!” in the margins, but I know that while they were writing about that moment, they forgot they were doing an assignment. They forgot this was a have to. They forgot about commas and coordinating conjunctions and grade point averages.

And my chisel comes in the form of moving the desks around and making them get out of their seats. And giving them candy. And making them work with someone that they would not even say hello to in the hall, but in ten years when they see that same person in the grocery store standing in front of a wall of bagged lettuces, they will hug. My chisel comes in the form of making them believe that they can do this because writing is a skill and what one man can do, they can do even better.

My chisel comes in the form of letting down my own façade and letting them see my flaws. Letting them know that being 18 is actually much harder than being 40. That I know they are at a point when decisions about their future form a cloud above them that casts a shadow a mile wide. And that it gets better. That any mistake they can even imagine making, I have probably made it, and I am still here because I just keep showing up. My chisel comes in the form of teaching them that it is better to be rejected than to have regrets.

My chisel comes in the form of knowing that they are in there behind that stone wall, behind the faces turned down and looking at their game of Clash of Clans, and that sometimes if it is the right day and the right activity they will appear to me in the marble, faces lit by light bulbs above their heads, and they are present and beautiful like works of art.

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Some Bunny to Love

I recently bought some remote control panties from a line of products called Bedroom Kandi, designed by former Real Housewives of Atlanta cast member Kandi Burruss. The products are beautifully packaged, high quality, and on many levels take away the unfortunate stigma around buying personal products for the bedroom. When I purchased the panties from a sales representative at a private party, I was drunk, which much more accurately simulates the sexual experience for me. The next morning I stumbled across the receipt in my purse and had instant regrets. Who needs a man? I can do this entire process on my own.

The panties are one size fits all and, especially when stuffed with the rechargeable massager, are a little droopy in the butt and crotch area. It makes it look like I am wearing a soggy black lace diaper. That vibrates. I have considered some scenarios, like maybe wear them to a hotel bar and pass the remote to a stranger. Hey handsome, give me a buzz. It is like giving him my room key, but instead just giving him instant, electronic access to my crotch.

I also ordered a giant dildo called Bunny You’ll Love it, and a product called Helping Hand that says on the box it can be for couples or single play. It is a device that goes on a penis, something I seem to have an awful lot of trouble getting my hands on. What I might do is reciprocate to Bunny Love, just to give something back—I do not want to be a selfish lover.

When I took my new, hot pink dildo out of the box, I screamed, “It’s so big!” and then felt shy and nervous. The only other dildo I have ever owned, I drunk ordered from Amazon and then forgot about the purchase until the package arrived. “What could this be?” Oh yes, it is a reminder that I am alone. I might as well have ordered some furniture for my cat. My Amazon dildo is very tiny, although it does say on the box that it can also be used as an anal butt plug (wink! wink!), so maybe this is the one time when vibrator is actually the euphemism. Don’t worry it will just say FOR VAGINAS ONLY on the box. Completely discreet.

The sex toy extravaganza is what I am going to call phase four in the online dating process. Phase one begins with a night spent home alone drinking and realizing that I am actually not “too good” for online dating. The signing up process is much quicker than expected, it is sort of like getting the courage to ride a terrifying roller coaster and then thinking there will be time while standing in line to pull myself together, enjoy the moments I have left, and tell my family that I love them, but then I just keep winding back and forth through the maze of dividers at a steady pace until suddenly I am sitting in the front row and the harness is being lowered onto my shoulders. Wait? What is happening?

Phase two is when I thought that it might actually work. I have had a few reasonable conversations, met some people for coffee, not been murdered—all the prerequisites for life long companionship. Then phase three is when I realize that all I am really getting from these people is text messages. It is a level of hell where messages are just sent back and forth with no impetus to make actual plans or to see each other in person. In my most generous assessment, I have assumed these types of men are married, but I think they are just lazy. They would rather have their ego stroked than anything else, and messaging with me delivers, and they don’t even have to leave their house or turn off their television.

Thus, sex toys. I feel this is a relationship I can actually make last. At least until they run out of batteries. Or I lose the remote. Then like everything else they will be added to the list of things that need attention: organize desk area, call the exterminator, schedule parent-teacher conference, buy batteries for giant dildo, find the remote for vibrating panties. Phase five is the inevitable buzz kill. I have not given up online dating, though. The phases are somewhat recursive. And I am a slow learner. I just recently swiped yes to a guy holding a kitten, mainly because it seems like he knows his audience. Are you alone? Yes! Do you like cats? Yes! Swipe right and we can enter into a relationship that consists of sexting and adorable cat photos. Yes! Back to phase one.

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The Austin Chronicles

When I was twenty-three I packed all of my things into an Isuzu Rodeo and moved to Austin. My boyfriend at the time helped me pack. I did not know anyone out there, and I had never even been to Austin, but I needed a change. I found an apartment online and put down a deposit. At the last minute my mother decided to ride with me, which made me feel slightly less independent, like a petulant child who wants to run away to prove a point, but her mother insists on helping her load the car and then riding in the passenger seat.

We got to town at night, and as we drove in on Highway 290 and crested a hill, the city appeared like a lite-bright display sprawled across a black canvas. I spent the first few days getting settled. My apartment was in a central location near a mall and a home for the blind. I bought a bed at a Sam’s Club and blew up an inflatable chair for my living room. I put my mom on a Greyhound back to Florida and then meandered through Dillard’s department store on the way home from the station and was promptly hired to work in the bathing suit department. Maybe it was because I was from Florida. The job mainly sucked. Bathing suits are not meant to be on hangers.

I made some good friends working there, including one girl who would later become my roommate. I also worked with a bright girl from Egypt, who I made laugh, and a serious woman from Ethiopia, who I made nervous. Looking back, I should have taken the job more seriously when I was on a shift with that woman. She had people to support. I just used the paycheck to cover my bar tabs.

I was helpful to the customers to a point. One day a lady asked me if we had a size 8 in a particular suit and without moving from my spot at the cash register, I said that we did not have an 8. I have an excellent memory, which can sometimes get me in trouble. It is not a quality men are often looking for, as if what they want most is someone who makes them laugh, gives great blow jobs, and remembers every word they have ever told her. I worked in that swimsuit department at least five days a week, racking the same bathing suits. I knew every size and style we had.

“You didn’t even look,” she said.

“We don’t have an 8,” I repeated without looking up.

“You need to go look,” she repeated authoritatively.

I just stood there. “I am not going to do that,” I said. Inside I was shaking a little, but not from nervousness, from the thrill of what I thought was a win.

Eventually, I got a job as a file clerk in a law firm and then a position as a legal secretary for a little man who specialized in tax law. He had a group of clients who got in some trouble for embezzling money, and they were most likely going to jail. I delivered some documents to their office, where their equipment had been seized, and tables and chairs were in disarray. Loose cords were coming out from walls and surge protector strips and connected to nothing. Untapped power.

I hated the job. He was a person of exactness, numbers and legalities, and I was a person of rebellion, short skirts and two-hour lunches. I also had an attitude, and I did not pretend to like him or that I wanted to be there. My actions confused him; as a middle-aged, successful tax attorney he did not know how to handle my belligerence. Then one day he told me that I needed to take the back-up disks home with me each night because that would protect all of his files in case of a force majeure. I told him—laughing—that if the building burned down or was wiped away by a giant twister, then I would not be coming back. He fired me and put us both out of our misery.

Before moving to Austin, I was working for a law firm in Tallahassee and failing out of college. I was also in a Frankenstein-esque relationship that was consistently reborn as a more sinister version of itself each time we broke up and then somehow found ourselves having sex again on his couch. It seemed like my life in that space was unsalvageable and had become a dangerous and self-destructive piecemeal version of what it should be, and the best solution was to just give up and move to Texas.

I don’t regret the experience, but it was mostly, more than any other emotion, lonely. This city had so much to offer, and I tried not to let being alone keep me from doing things, like seeing shows or dining out, but sometimes it did—sometimes the town held untapped power because I lacked the crowd to experience it. I saw Lyle Lovett play with his large band at The Backyard, and I purchased my single seat in the middle of a long row. I bought a beer in a giant plastic cup and then made my way scooting sideways to my seat as people curled up their legs in succession like dominoes. Maybe nobody noticed, but I remember being somewhat self-conscious because what twenty-four-year-old woman goes to a show like that alone unless she is a reporter or a suicide bomber?

But the show was spectacular. The large band under the stars. I went back and saw Robert Earl Keen, but at least it was general admission, which made it easier to blend. I went to see Patty Griffin at a bar downtown, where she sang on stage with just an acoustic guitar, and I stood on the side stairs, as if I had just wandered through the crowd and landed there mesmerized. I went to a show after work one night at Antone’s with the alcoholic secretary from my office and went home with a guy who was going through a divorce. I see that now as foreshadowing.

His name was Rocky—maybe I do agree with Lee Gutkind that I cannot make this stuff up. He was the perfect metaphor for recently divorced/not really divorced guys everywhere. He adored me for about 48 hours. He took me out to a fancy dinner, and then we came back to my apartment, had sex, and I never heard from him again.

After my forced retirement from legal secretary work, I landed a good job, especially for a girl with no college degree and minimal work ethic, working for an insurance company in the human resources department. Then the company was bought by Allstate and dissolved. I was laid off, and I took it as a sign. A force majeure. I packed up all my stuff, and just like with any trip, the items never fit back into the suitcase the way they did on the way out there. I went home with more baggage.

When I got back to Tallahassee, I somehow talked my way into the creative writing program at Florida State. Yes, I had failed out of multiple schools and my GPA was well below average for acceptance as a transfer student, but I sit here before you and tell you my story, and I am not leaving until I am heard.

During the spring semester, I wrote a short story for a fiction workshop about a girl in her early twenties, living in Austin, working as a file clerk in a law firm. She was lonely and desperate, and the main qualities she looked for in a friend were a heartbeat and a shared enthusiasm for happy hour. She befriends a strange set of characters, including the alcoholic secretary from her office and a blind guy who was constantly starting bar fights while his Pit Bull guide dog sat on a barstool drinking directly out of a pint glass.

My fiction class hated it. During our workshop they commented that it seemed “Sad,” and I don’t think they meant in the sympathetic way, but more in the way that sad becomes a synonym for loser. They also had difficulty finding any significance to the story. One student, after a long explanation about why the story didn’t work, concluded, “I mean, who cares?”

I sat quietly, pretending to make notes on my draft. I knew the real reason the story didn’t work was because I was trying to pass off my nonfiction work in a fiction class. As if it never really happened. There is more that separates nonfiction from fiction than just facts. Taking ownership of events becomes the thread that holds the story together, and without that connection it is just a pile of words that you can sift through, letting the letters fall through your fingers into a pile of ash. The significance to the story was the twenty-eight-year-old undergraduate student sitting across the classroom nervously clicking her pen.

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Catch Me as I’m Coming Through the Rye

 

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I see a therapist. I find this embarrassing, not because it implies I have mental health issues, but because it is a symbol of privilege, as if I am a 40-year-old Holden Caulfield. Basically, I pay someone to listen to me whine. We talk about my dating life and my divorce, all the things that my friends and family are sick and tired of hearing about. Like Holden, if the world won’t listen, then I will just find some phony who will. Not my whole goddamn autobiography or anything.

Usually she will start by saying something like, “How is it going with the guy you are dating?”

And I will say, “Which guy?” Then we will narrow it down to which half-ass, non-relationship she means, and I shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh that guy.”

We also talk about how I am 40 but still have plenty of time left and then our session ends, and we schedule the next appointment. It is sort of like having drinks with a girlfriend, but minus the drinks, and I have to pay her. I am not even sure that I want to continue these sessions, but I don’t know how to break it off. That has never been my strong suit. It’s not you; it’s me. We should just be friends. We can still hang out, but just not like before. Let’s just get married.

If I had a therapist when I was a teenager and in my twenties, my life could have developed differently. But that is a risk. If I graduated from college in the requisite four years instead of taking ten, then maybe I would be farther along in my career, rising all the way to middle management and then sculpting my hair into a helmet so that I could crash through the glass ceiling. Then after work I would unbutton the blazer of my Hillary Clinton pantsuit and take my seventy cents on the dollar to Applebee’s for buy one, get one Amaretto sours.

Instead I kept my career at the expendable secretarial level by choice, so I could remain non-exempt and still qualify for overtime, and so that I could come to work hungover. I could also disappear for hours at lunchtime because nobody really noticed or cared that I existed. Work was less of a commitment than college. And it paid slightly better. And there was free coffee.

I finally graduated from undergrad when I was 29. Then I went back to graduate school at 34 after having two kids. Now, I teach college English to dual-enrolled high school seniors. I wish I had been half as smart as my dumbest student when I was a senior. I spent most of my senior year rolling my eyes. I was angry and resentful at all those people who were trying to teach me and better my life. I wanted to just be left alone so that I could hang out at home and paint sunflowers in my underwear. I did not want “the man” or my sweet third period teacher who seemed to genuinely care about me to be all up in my business. I wanted to smoke cigarettes and make eye contact with cute guys at the library, who usually closed their books and moved to a different section to avoid my creepy stares. They moved to a spot in reference. Where there would be reliable witnesses.

Also during my senior year my mom and stepdad left me at home alone so they could take a three-week tour of nude beaches in Europe. I quickly realized that with them gone, there was no reason for me to go to school. I stayed home and worked on my painting and made occasional trips to the health food store to buy hummus. When I returned to school, my physics teacher pulled me aside and asked if I was on drugs. I just hung my head sadly and said, “No.”

I still graduated, but that was the start. The realization that I didn’t have to do anything I did not want to do. It was a spark that erupted into a wildfire, and it consumed me. I skipped class, sparsely at first, missing a Friday occasionally, until I just quit showing up at all. I lost an entire semester. An entire year. Changed schools. Convinced myself that I would actually try. Then I stopped going on Fridays and the cycle would start all over again. It was as if my college degree was floating across a windy parking lot, and I would chase it, but I could never grasp it or even catch it under my shoe, so it would continue to blow away, landing on a Buick and then drifting into a drainage ditch while I got distracted by shapes in the clouds and then said, “Fuck it” and went to a bar.

But I did not give up. My life as an office worker kept me just unhappy enough to keep chasing the dream. I enjoyed the benefits of living paycheck to paycheck—at least they bridged the gap—and getting affordable birth control with my nifty HMO, but then I would attend a meeting and be silenced, instantly reminded of my place in the pool of uneducated clerical workers. I hate it when I am at a meeting and I am invisible. It makes me depressed as hell.

I graduated from college mainly to prove a point. And so I could be heard. I have spent a lot of time looking back and trying to make all my experiences connect—paycheck to paycheck—but there are too many gaps, places where I had to leap or stay home and eat ramen noodles. And then there are even spans of years that are unrecognizable, indecipherable, like when I was married. I often try to bridge the space between my days as a rebellious young adult to my position now as a rebellious older adult with actual responsibilities, like taking care of my children and remembering to take out the garbage (both tasks I inadvertently neglect until the recycle bin is completely full). My time as a married person, also known as my thirties, is just a patch of darkness, like a section of the street that is not touched by the street lights.

When I go back to my time as a twenty-something-year-old idiot I am usually trying to figure out where I lost ground and writing from the muddy perspective of a future disappointed version of myself. It is dishonest. I am not sure I would have changed anything. I flunked out of multiple schools, and not because I was dealing with serious issues, like addiction or unwanted pregnancy, but because I wanted to just lie in the bottom bunk of my dorm room, smoke cigarettes, and listen to Lyle Lovett. I was disillusioned, lonely, and lazy. I really was.

I was also lucky enough to be allowed to make mistakes. I could walk the tightrope knowing there was a net—falling and bouncing was just as much fun as making it to the other side. The truth is that I failed out of multiple schools, and now I am fine. And maybe that is too shameful to write about. But that is also why I keep attempting it. Connecting the negative space. That kills me.

My therapy sessions are much less intrusive. We stay in the now and even consider the future, something I usually neglect, which is why I never spring for the warranty, or opt for water at last call, or clean the coffee pot the night before. The me of today is not doing any favors for the me of tomorrow. Because like I tried to explain to my daughter when she kept asking if it was tomorrow yet, in an attempt to clarify the real definition of the word, “Sweetheart, it will never be tomorrow.”

And tomorrow certainly doesn’t fill pages. Luckily, I can pay someone to help me remember that it probably exists. And to remind me that continually sabotaging the future for the me of tomorrow is like living an entire life hungover while doing the walk of shame. And to tell me that I have many years left. Good years? It’s possible. I mean how do you really know what you are going to do until you do it? I swear it’s a stupid question. It really is.

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Cockblocker

I recently joined Tinder. At the age of 40 and after a disappointing conversation with my ex-boyfriend because that is how I start all my dating endeavors—as a late bloomer and as a form of revenge. What I like best about Tinder is that people can only message me if I have liked them, and it is based completely on looks. You just look at pictures of people and decide if you like them or not. It is similar to ordering off the menu at Denny’s.

I like to drink a few glasses of wine and then start swiping through photos. The more drinks I have, the more people I seem to like, just rapid fire swiping right. It says you are 42, but you look like Hugh Hefner’s grandfather? Swipe right! Your profile picture is just a tub of ice cream? Swipe right! Grown-ass man wearing a Boy Scout uniform? Swipe right! Wearing a McCain/Palin shirt while sitting on a horse? No. Swipe left. I have to draw the line somewhere, and that line starts anywhere in the vicinity of Sarah Palin.

I have not actually been on a date through Tinder yet, but I talk to people occasionally. Before I joined, I heard that Tinder was really just about hooking up, but maybe I am not doing it right. I have my age limit set between 35 and 50, and perhaps that demographic is too tired and broken. Also, they are all divorced, so they are afraid that women will just take all their stuff. Dating guys who are fresh out of divorce is sort of like dating someone who is clinging to a Styrofoam cooler after he has just watched his boat sink into the abyss. If we worked together, we could probably build a raft and make it to safety, but he is going to have to let go first.

In my new post-divorce dating life, the conversation goes rapidly from “What’s your name?” to “How long have you been divorced?” That question is the new “What do you do?” which was previously the new “What’s your major?” I guess my next question will be “What hurts?” and then hopefully, “How long have you been a widow?”

I am always surprised by how quickly people will ask me about divorce, and even after they do I am still cautious with returning the question, allowing for the possibility that maybe he is not divorced. He could still be married, was never married, or his wife could have died (call me!). However, they usually are actually divorced or divorcing (call me in six months!), and then we talk about how our exes are unreasonable assholes and how we, in contrast, are delightful loving people just trying to get on with our lives.

At least I have settled into a pattern. I pick from the menu, then I receive a message, and we chat about how divorce is simultaneously the worst and best thing that has happened to us, and then we decide to exchange phone numbers to talk as one guy put it “The old fashioned way.” He meant texting. Then we text for a few days about how Mondays suck or about how I would be perfectly happy to just go sit in a port-o-let and drink a gallon of wine, and then we never actually meet or speak to each other again.

I am probably not going to find a life partner or even a dinner date on Tinder, but I can’t seem to resist opening up the app and just swiping. And swiping. And swiping. It is sort of like playing a slot machine. Based on what I have already seen, odds are in my favor to keep going.

I have actually finished Tinder a few times. Eventually I get to a screen that says, “There is no one new around you.” It usually appears unexpectedly, as I am frantically swiping and thinking there must be some reasonable person who is not wearing camouflage or holding a baby (how long have you been separated?) that is on this completely free dating app that requires almost no effort—you don’t even have to know how to read. Then BOOM. I reach the edge and think life is hopeless, and I am going to be alone forever until I am humanely euthanized by my cats.

Then the next day I check Tinder and somehow there are all new men. Swipe right!

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Episodes

Boating with my Dad in 1975.

Boating with my dad in 1975.

My dad was on Judge Judy. And he lost. It isn’t necessarily something that I am proud of, but it does usually earn me a win in the pissing contest for who has the most fucked up family. My only loss is to a friend whose brother was on Montel Williams, and not as the guest they bring out first, but one of those guests that they bring out about halfway through the show as the audience boos and hisses and you think, “Why did he agree to be on this show?”

My dad was always working on some type of scheme. And nothing else. He spent most of his later years unemployed and broke. His Judge Judy appearance had something to do with a handshake deal he made with his roommate to buy his house, which shockingly turned into a shit storm when one of them slept with the other’s girlfriend, and then my dad accused him of trying to steal the house.  I have never seen the episode because I don’t want to remember him like that, probably wearing a tank top in a court room. He will look out of place, like he is standing in front of the wrong backdrop.

My dad didn’t jump through hoops. He wasn’t going to put on a tie or even a shirt with sleeves and sit behind a desk, spending his days making phone calls and stapling things.  He was completely incapable of conforming, and I don’t blame him for that. I can even relate. I struggle to sit at my computer, my hand gripping the mouse afraid to let go because I know that I am like him, and that I am just one “Take this job and shove it” away from standing at a podium in front of the world’s most famous judge, probably smoking a cigarette while trying to seek reparation from my ex-boyfriend for smashing my windshield with a bottle of Jack Daniels. It is a slippery slope.

When I worked at a department store in college, we were required to wear panty hose, but I never wore them, mainly because it gave me a small sense of control. My manager would ask me what happened to my hose, and I would just stare down at my bare legs and shrug as if they had mysteriously disintegrated into the misogynistic past. The less control I have in my life, the more I am impelled to rebel against the codes. My dad must have felt out of control for the duration.

When he died he was living in a weekly let motel with no car and no money. In his room we found six dollars and some change that my sister and I split as our inheritance. Neither of us spent our portion and we often talk about pooling our money to buy lottery tickets. He also left behind legal proceedings from a meth possession charge and a small gathering of friends and family wondering if they could have done something to save him. I want to say that I always thought the time would come when we would reconnect, but the biggest emotion I felt after he died was relief. When I see a homeless man on the street corner, I don’t have to worry if it is him. Not anymore.

The summer after my freshmen year in high school I stayed at his house on a small lake outside of Lake Wales, Florida. It was the last summer I ever stayed with him for longer than a short weekend. My dad worked the night shift at a factory that summer and slept all day and worked all night, so I spent a lot of time listening to the Violent Femmes on my tape deck and writing in my journals. I also spent a lot of time stealing Southern Comfort from his new wife’s party handler and mixing it with ginger ale, as a way to alleviate boredom. I stole whole packs of cigarettes—Winston Lights—from the carton they stashed in the kitchen drawer. I swam in the lake by myself, floating in the cool water, staring up at the clouds. Baptized from my sins.

My dad would let me drive to the gas station on the corner, even though I was only fifteen. I would hang around the kitchen to ask if he needed anything, hoping for the chance to get to take the car. He would let me go buy diet cokes or more cans of the ginger ale that were always mysteriously disappearing. I cranked the music, lit a cigarette, rolled the windows down, and stepped on the gas. My long wavy hair swirled around the front seat like a tornado.

I was five years old when my parents divorced. I remember lying awake at nights listening to yelling from the living room, and then one night he left and in the aftermath the house was quiet, like it was letting out a long sigh. He moved to Miami to live with my grandparents in a high rise condo in Coconut Grove that overlooked Biscayne Bay and was heavily mirrored. It was like living in a ballet studio in the clouds. There was a pool and an intercom system at the door that called directly to the condo. There were elevators. My dad started a new life and joined a small church that met at a ranch style house on Key Biscayne.  He remarried. After the wedding, I cried and screamed for him as they ran out the front steps towards the getaway car.

His new wife was in her early twenties with a son about my age, and together they created a life that was a shadow box of suburbia. There were family vacations and coordinated bedroom sets. There were also problems. Most of what I found comfort in—the traditional, suburban family—was just a bunch of cardboard cutouts glued hastily into an old shoe box. My dad had a manic temper and a dangerous habit of spending money before he even knew where he would earn it. He always had plans. As a kid, I saw him as eternally optimistic and spontaneous. Looking back, I think he suffered from mental illness. He was paranoid, defensive, and delusional. I remember being on a long car trip, hunkered down in the bed of his truck because he thought people were shooting at us. Another time he was convinced his best friend was hiding out in the darkness of the backyard like a sniper. I believed him. I didn’t believe in God, and I do not remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I always thought I was just born a skeptic, but maybe there was just so much of the unbelievable I could allow myself to believe. He took all I had.

Right after he was remarried, they left Miami and moved into a camper while working on building a new house on a piece of property out in the country. It was going to have an indoor swimming pool with a bridge—he had pictures and plans drawn on yellow legal pads. One afternoon he and his wife were having a fight, so I played outside running my toe through the dirt to write messages in the sand. My dad swung the door of the camper open and walked towards me angrily. He said that I made her mad, and I needed to go in the camper and apologize. “If you don’t tell her you’re sorry she will leave, and it will be your fault,” he said.

I just stared at him. He said it again, but with more seriousness and anger and then got in his truck and peeled out of the campground, dust clouding up around me. I stood outside the camper staring at the flimsy door. I finally climbed up the metal steps and saw her sitting on the banquette folding laundry. I just stood there, and she didn’t say anything. I felt choked by the tension in the room. I couldn’t speak. I was paralyzed. I might have been less terrified if I was trapped in a tiny camper with a bear. I was not sure exactly what made her mad; I was stubborn and sure that I was smarter than her. It could have been anything. Finally, I darted back out the door and ran across the campground to a picnic area by the front office. She left.

Looking back, I don’t think she wanted me to say anything. It must have been hard to be married to my dad. I don’t know what kind of abuse she was taking. She was young and trapped. She did what she had to do, and I was just collateral damage. My dad never hurt me physically.  I just dealt with a lot of silence and guilt, and I think she knew it would be that way, so maybe the most generous assessment is that it was a calculated risk. But I was only six.

And she came back. There were many other incidents where I was used—as leverage, as a weapon, as an example—and she became a more active agent, but it is hard for me now to think of her as a bad person. When I was younger, I felt like the bad person, that I was antagonizing her, pushing her because I was mean and heartless, mainly because that is what I was told. I believed. Then when I got older, I realized that I was a child and she was an adult, no matter how young. We were not equal adversaries. Now as a woman, I see her as someone who was stuck in a debilitating marriage. She once tried to shoot my dad but could not figure out how to work the safety on his gun. She finally left for good when I was thirteen. There was no meeting with lawyers and splitting up assets, she just disappeared. After my dad died, I thought it would be safe to contact her—that she might be willing. She never responded. I picture her sitting silently waiting for me to apologize as I stand in a little cloud of dirt at the door. I also picture myself opening my mouth and sucking in enough air to crumple the tiny camper like an aluminum can.

My relationship with my dad existed in episodes. We came together on weekends and summer weeks to merge our divergent lives. We went on a trip to Disney World when I was in middle school, just the two of us. We stood in line for Thunder Mountain, waiting at the turnstiles for the other riders to exit the train and watched a father and daughter laughing as they crawled out of their seats, then stopping to give each other a high five before they disappeared down the dark hallway. We looked away awkwardly, knowing that we did not have that kind of shiny, unfettered relationship. Our Disney trip was more like a business deal—I was being compensated.

After I graduated from high school, I saw him much less. He was out of work and his third marriage was crumbling. I remember sitting at the kitchen table listening to his wife talk about the sad selection of cold cuts at her local Kash n’ Karry. She lit a cigarette and stared out the window, “You can only get smoked turkey if you are really lucky.” She was already gone.

My sister and I would go see him occasionally and play poker with his friends. He had a good friend who worked on the road crew for the county, another who repaired broken televisions, and others who worked odd jobs or not at all. They kept cigarettes in their front pockets and drank mixed drinks in 32-ounce plastic travel mugs from the Circle K. He would lean back in his chair and howl with laughter when my sister or I laid out winning hands and then swept the wadded up bills and change from the center of the table into our own pile. He was dependably proud of us. That is one truth I never had to struggle to believe.

Once I grew up, and I was no longer his little girl, he never understood me. I worked tirelessly to keep it that way. I worried that if he could relate to my life then I was in danger of turning out just like him. He just couldn’t get on the path. He remained stubbornly in the wilderness. As I moved slowly towards civilization, the farther I drifted from him. When I got married to the most stable and unspontaneous man I could find, I had not spoken to my dad in years.

My sister called me one afternoon while I was at work to tell me that he was going to be on Judge Judy. I didn’t ask why—what the case was about—because his entire life was a Judge Judy style dispute. It made sense, but the idea made me cringe. It was not a stretch to think of him as an out-of-work, tank top wearing defendant. We were used to that, but on national television that would be all that he was. All that he ever was. She called back to tell me about him flying out to California with his buddy who lived in a doublewide trailer a few lots down from his small house with the vinyl siding. I pictured them in the airport, then walking the streets of Los Angeles. Again, I cringed.

I was at work when my sister called to tell me that he was going to die. I had an office with a wall of windows, and I stood and stared at a vacant field across from the heat-baked parking lot in the back of our building. She was at the hospital. She said he took a cab to the emergency room because he was having chest pains. She said the doctor told her he was not going to make it. We hung up. She called back less than an hour later. He was gone.

Standing in my office, the phone held between my ear and my shoulder, I felt like I was dressed up for a role, like I was a paper doll and my heels and slacks and blouse were held on by paper tabs and underneath was just a dirt-smudged Florida girl. I felt completely out of place, like I was standing in front of the wrong backdrop. If I was an image on a screen, I would look like someone who belonged on a paved road. As if that is all I was. All that I ever was.

After he died I did not have to just be a negation. I allowed myself to go barefoot. I remembered that jeans are much more comfortable as shorts. I quit my job, had a couple kids, and moved to South Georgia. I was sliding. I also allowed myself to scheme. When he was alive my ideas scared me because what if they were no different than his delusions? Wanting to be a writer seemed just as outrageous as my dad wanting to build a mansion.  I was perpetually unhappy at work—to me the office was just a prison without the excitement of communal showers—but I would convince myself that those thoughts were part of some genetic defect. Successful people sat at desks. I was so afraid of failing by being like him that I never allowed myself to revel in his rebellion. He was at least half of where I come from, and once he was gone it was as if a weight was lifted off my chest, and I was able to breathe deep into my lungs and then exhale, letting my stories swirl up around me in clouds of dust.

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Zombie Apocalypse

“If you don’t think a mental patient has the right to bring a sawed-off shotgun to the church where his ex-girlfriend is getting married, you’re part of the problem.”

David Sedaris from let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.


I made the terrifying mistake of giving my students from South Georgia the writing prompt, “Are you prepared for the zombie apocalypse?” The answer is YES. All of my students are armed with enough lethal weapons to annihilate an entire army of the undead. Their writing responses, supposed to be metaphoric and possibly leading to insights about who and what they value most, turned into long lists of guns and ammunition that they or their parents have stored in gun cabinets/bomb shelters.

“But why do you have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?” I kept asking.

“In case we are attacked,” they responded.

“By who?”

“Terrorists, the Chinese, our own government, that guy from down the road who shot my puppy.”

I explained calmly that in my humble unarmed opinion the zombies were the most likely scenario—after the guy who shot the puppy.

I am anti-gun, and I have even had students ask me incredulously, “You don’t believe in the second amendment?”

I tell them that I believe in it—as in I think it exists—but it just doesn’t have the same meaning to me. I have noted that “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” part is really just a clause to support the “A well regulated militia” part and is taken out of context. It is sort of like all the clauses that could come after “In case of emergency.” In case of emergency break this glass, exit out this door, abandon your car in the middle of the street, let Sandra Bullock drive the bus.

And they were responding to the needs of our country in 1791. A lot has changed since 1791. For starters, we are a developed country. We have a well-funded, organized military. States have the National Guard. We do not need private citizens running out to join the cause with the shotgun they keep under their mattress. Also there have been significant technological changes since the Bill of Rights was drafted. Advances in gun design and manufacture for example, which greatly change the meaning of the word “arms.”  And maybe most importantly, there have been major changes to the structure of our society—how and where we live—that creates new anxieties. New dangers that require us to adapt. To amend.

However, I like interacting with these bright and well-rounded students about guns because I do not think anyone in my classes is dangerous. I have no concerns that they are going to shoot up a movie theater or my classroom. They live in a rural area, and their parents have taught them gun responsibility. And most of them earn A’s in my class.

However, it doesn’t change my position. Simply because something can be handled responsibly doesn’t mean it will be handled responsibly by the entirety of the population. Compared to all the things—the nouns—that we have made illegal in this country, like drugs, counterfeit money, prostitutes, cheese, immigrants, black people, none are as deadly to humans and used in more dangerous illegal verbs than guns.

Perhaps it is so challenging to make changes about gun ownership because the opposition is heavily armed. It was probably much easier to make drugs illegal because it is difficult, although not impossible, to stand your ground by waving a bag of coke in someone’s face. Even steroids are illegal, and if the Tour de France was the Tour D’America, Lance Armstrong would probably still have his titles if instead of taking drugs he just carried a gun and shot out the competitors’ kneecaps in self-defense.

This country was founded on the fact that we fought back and gained independence (and then enslaved people). We are Americans, and we are armed and dangerous! A significant part of our patriotic ethos stems from the fact that we are fighters, and we can protect ourselves. But we aren’t protecting ourselves.

We make it much too easy to get a gun. I have to go to a doctor and get a pap smear to get a drug that gives me the power to keep from becoming pregnant with a single person, but an individual can buy a gun to murder an entire room of people with very little interference from professionals. In my state, there is a background check policy, but not if the gun is purchased from an individual and there is no waiting period. Perhaps, we should require people to get a rectal exam to get a gun—an asshole check.

Basically, by refusing to make any changes to gun laws, even simply increasing waiting periods and/or requiring more rigorous background checks, we are saying that the right to bear arms is more important than the right to not be shot. Reading the comments section from articles linked to from the NRA website, such as a recent article about Regal Theaters’ decision to begin checking bags as a safety precaution, NRA supporters continually promote the idea that by carrying guns they are adding to the safety of the environment because they will be able to stop a crazed shooter with their own gun. The response is almost always based on the idea that if the bad guys have guns then the good guys should have guns.

But shouldn’t a good guy be willing to wait two weeks or even longer to get a new gun? I had to wait six weeks to get my new passport in the mail. When I applied for my passport, I was just coming out of a break-up, and I thought the next best move was to flee the country, but by the time my passport arrived, I had calmed down and decided not to abandon life as I knew it. I put the blue booklet safely away in a drawer.

We can make adjustments without banning guns entirely, although we seem to be fine with bans on other possibly dangerous things. Things that can be abused or can make people dangerous—drugs and drunk driving for example. We do not argue that the best defense against drunk drivers is for good people to also drink and drive—that I should drive drunk in order to run the other drunk drivers off the road, like a goddamn hero. We make laws that are based on the fact that since some people cannot be trusted, we must enact zero tolerance. We declare war. We put people in jail for even the possession of illegal substances. But not guns. It is our right to keep and bear arms so that we can maintain a well-regulated militia, which is necessary for the security of a free state.

But why do we have stockpiles of guns and ammunition for real?

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Yes, I Like Piña Coladas

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, like when you think you found a roly poly, but it turns out to be just a bug. Or when you think the air conditioner repairman is flirting with you, but he is really just asking if your air conditioner is working properly because that is his job. Or when you answer a personal ad because YES, you like piña coladas, and then you get to the restaurant and it is the guy you are already dating, which is a real let down for multiple reasons, all related to the fact that it is the guy you are already dating.

If you watch television, then you might think getting your kids ready for school is just about leaning against the kitchen counter with a smile while your kid gets a pep talk from his Frosted Mini-Wheats. The morning routine in our house involves very little smiling and almost no nutrition, but is instead a rigorous process of pressing the snooze button and crying. Once I get the kids out of bed it gets even worse. With my daughter, the mornings start out like the movie Weekend at Bernie’s, except without the white sand beaches and the witty side kick. It is just me trying to dress and feed a completely limp body, dragging her around the house as her legs leave a trail on the dusty floor. Then I try to brush her hair, and it rapidly turns into a scene from the Exorcist.

We have thick hair in my family. When I was a child, I remember fighting with my mother about brushing my hair, and I also remember getting large knots cut out from deep inside the layers where there was probably a family of larks living and making a nest. I once had a bird chase me down the street, swooping and diving at my head because she thought she found a nest-making jackpot, just walking down the street, completely unguarded by predators. Getting my daughter’s hair brushed is the most important part of our morning in the sense that people will actually notice if it is not brushed. Nobody will know that she had a Sprite Zero for breakfast, but they will see that her hair looks like she was recently involved in a shipwreck.

I also have a son. He gets dressed by himself and is mostly self sufficient, but he complains from the moment he wakes up about the atrocity of school. He usually flings himself back onto my bed just moaning as I try to choose an outfit from my slutty professional collection. As I put on my make-up he has usually slid to the floor and is lying on the carpet telling me about how recess is only ten minutes long, no actually five minutes, actually now that he thinks about it, they have not even had recess in twenty days.

Right now we are at the end of the summer and preparing to go back to school. It is that time of year when the denial phase is waning, and I am entering into the chugging piña coladas phase. I do have some mixed emotions about back to school because there is the joy that comes from knowing my children are embarking on another year of learning and growing in the care of qualified strangers, but then there is also the fact that I am a teacher, and soon I will have to pry the piña colada out of my sunburnt hand and put on a slightly more appropriate outfit and get back to work.

I have a lot of expectations for this year about getting up earlier in the morning, being a more organized professional, being a better mother, and most importantly finally finishing the entire series of Sons of Anarchy on Netflix. But life is full of surprises. How could you ever know that the woman you have been with for years and who seems like a total bore really does like making love at midnight in the dunes of a cape, unless you run a personal ad and try to cheat on her with someone else? And it is probably best that I am not playing out my fantasy of hot sex with the air conditioner repairman with the actual air conditioner repairman (it should obviously be someone who is not an air conditioner repairman but has played one on TV), and roly polies are fascinating but frighten easily, just like my ex-boyfriend.

As I try not to let the stress of the arrival of another school year swallow me whole—by firing up the blender one last time—I try to remember that we all survived the last school year. Also there is therapy. And maybe the reason I haven’t finished Sons of Anarchy is less about my ability to finish things and more about the fact that I don’t like all the misogyny and the murder and the leather vests.

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Sunday Service

I live in Georgia. And not Atlanta. South Georgia. When I say that I live in Valdosta, people usually repeat the word back to me like they are auditioning for a part in Huck Finn, “Val-DOS-TA!” Then they tell me they stopped here once on the way to Atlanta because they had a flat tire or because they wanted a biscuit from Bojangles. Before Valdosta, I was living in Florida, and my husband at the time commuted 70 miles each way to work at the university here. Then I had a baby and decided that I could screw that kid up anywhere, so we packed and moved across state lines.

Not long after we moved into our new house, members of the local Baptist church started showing up on Sunday afternoons. The first time I was in the backyard with my son trying to blow up an inflatable pool and appropriately yelling, “Goddamnit!” Then a group of older ladies appeared at my fence. Skirts to the ground. Bibles in hand. They were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area?

I like to picture these women coming directly from some kind of a situation room. There is a wall of photos with potential members/victims and post-it notes that describe specifics about the individual that might help lure them into the well-lit, air-conditioned halls of the Baptist church, things like “Marital trouble” or “Drinks too much” or “Stupid,” and then there is a large map of Lowndes County spread out on the table with a giant red circle around my house.

I told them that we attended church in a nearby town with my husband’s family, which was technically true because we did do that once on Easter. Then I tried to act like I was really busy, “Stop splashing in the pool!” I yelled to my toddler son. Then the next weekend, after what I assume was some sort of Baptist briefing about the importance of demographics, a group of women my same age showed up on Sunday afternoon. When I saw the minivan pull in the driveway, I appropriately said, “Goddamnit.”

They told me about their kids and how precious my son was as he kicked dirt at a squirrel. Also they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area yet. I said that we go to church with my husband’s family in a town about forty-five minutes away because that is how we like our religion: inconvenient. They kept making small talk, and I just stood there in my own driveway afraid to tell them my actual stance on church, and my complete lack of interest in attending any church in the area, and not just because I would rather dig through garbage at the dump than spend my Sunday mornings attending a lecture, but because I do not believe in a god.

The next Sunday they came back. It was like a horror movie. The kind where you think the killer is dead. There is no way he can come back! He doesn’t even have a head! But then you walk outside to get something from the garage and this white minivan full of Baptists pulls into your driveway, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I can see them after church, filing into the situation room, while a man points to my picture like a football coach at halftime.

You ladies get back in the minivan, and you bring me that new family! What would Jesus do? Answer me! Would Jesus let that woman say she goes to church in another town? Would he? No. Jesus saves. He is economical. He would mention the rising cost of gas prices. He would break her down to tears, bag her, and stuff her into the back of the van. Wait. No, that is not necessarily what Jesus would do, but you get the idea. Play on her weaknesses. There are plenty. Now, line up for a slap on the ass and then get out there and get me some new members. And tell them to bring their wallets.

At first I thought maybe they didn’t see me, and I could just go inside, lock the door, and hide behind the couch. But I stalled too long. Just like the girl who is murdered first because she is paralyzed standing in the kitchen staring at the guy with the chainsaw, while all her friends have run away—past all the possible exits and ground floor windows—and are hiding safely upstairs in a closet. I walked toward the van. Just get it over with.

They would really love to welcome my family to the Baptist church. There is childcare. For a brief moment I pictured myself sitting peacefully in an air-conditioned sanctuary dressed up like I was going to be a contributor on CNN while my son was in another room digging through a box of toys marked “Mythical Creatures” trying to fish out the T-Rex. I considered it. I thanked them for visiting me again, and I said that I would discuss it with my husband. They nodded with understanding, as if to say they know that he makes all the decisions. Of course.

One of my problems is that I am eternally optimistic, which is an interesting characteristic for an atheist, I realize, but I am one of those people who anticipates getting the mail because you never know. Maybe my boyfriend from tenth grade finally wrote me that letter he promised he would write while on vacation with his family, instead of not writing and never calling me ever again. Maybe there will be a letter from a publisher with a check for a book advance. Whenever the phone rings, I jump up mid-pee with pants around my ankles to run for the phone, and then get disappointed when it is just my doctor’s office calling to remind me of my next appointment. Yes. I will be there. We will have fun.

So the next Sunday when the doorbell rang, I ran to the door, slid on my socks, and swung it open hoping to find something like a video crew and a man with a giant check. Instead I opened the door to a group of men standing in a semi-circle dressed like they were doing a photo shoot for the Father’s Day edition of the J.C. Penney catalog. They wanted to know if my husband was home. Yes! He is! I left the pleated khakis at the door and found him in his underwear on the computer.

“Tell them I am not here,” he said.

“Goddamnit,” I said appropriately.

I went back to the door, hoping to just tell them he wasn’t available and goodbye, but they stuck a tassled loafer in the door and said they were just wondering if we had decided on a church in the area. Their briefing must have included some kind of pact to just make the pitch no matter what, and I imagined them standing there giving the same speech to my closed door. It was a dream, really. They mentioned that my husband worked at the university. Then they listed some names of other guys they knew—in alphabetical order—who also worked at the university in the same department. The men’s bible study this week must have included a lesson on the power of name-dropping. Next week: making it relevant.

Eventually they left and went home to mow their lawns and stare vacantly into the horizon, repeating the words, “Until death do us part,” not necessarily because they want to kill their wives, but it is a nice reminder about the real promise of heaven. Then they stand in front of their grills and think about putting their clean-shaven faces right into the flames.

The next weekend they came back to my house. I had never seen such a relentless pursuit. I really did not know what they wanted from us except 10% of our earnings and our souls. But was that worth this amount of effort? Again, I opened the door. “Goddamnit.” My son was holding onto my leg, looking at the array of Dockers, ranging all the way from khaki to dark khaki. It was like Stonehenge. “We are not interested in attending your church,” I said finally, “But thank you.”

They left me another pamphlet. Just in case. Just in case I decided at the age of 32 to suddenly become a Baptist. Looking back all these years later, I regret not telling the first group of women the truth. The fact that I do not go to church. On purpose. The problem is not just that I am a confident atheist, but that I have a problem with organized religion generally, and especially the dominant church culture in the South, which imposes judgment based on their personal beliefs onto the entire population. There are exceptions, but often times the church stands as a barrier to equality and human rights and problematically responds in fear to the country’s growing secularism.

Also—and this is the most controversial of all—I have no interest in exposing my children to Christianity. I do not view being Christian or atheist as two equivalent options that must be chosen between, like heads or tails or my place or yours. Christianity is a life-style choice, and if my kids rebelliously choose that life, then I will accept them. The same way I will accept them if they choose to be gluten-free or assholes.

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