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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We’re a Club in the Woods

I have partnered with wild animals and rocking musicians, Bears and Lions from Gainesville, Florida to tell the story of their journey from caged circus animals to leaders of the biggest club in the woods, where animals can live wild and free. Because who better to write a book for kids than me?

This video is their official submission to NPR’s tiny desk concert series. They are larger than life animals playing behind a tiny desk in a big field. Whoa! Was that a horse? Of course.

The following is an excerpt from the future bestseller and not-just-for-kids book, We’re a Club in the Woods. This chapter is about Jeremiah, the little old mule from West Virginia. He is one of many friends that Bear and Lion help along their way armed with only their magical suitcases full of cash and pancakes and the promise of living wild and free. You and me! The narrator is an alert little hummingbird who flutters around Bear and Lion, watching and taking note of their journeys and sometimes getting into the stash of maple syrup.

Jeremiah

I just went on and took the blame. Ain’t nobody gonna believe a little old mule from West Virginia. There wasn’t gonna be a jury of my peers. So I just up and left. The fire wasn’t even out yet. The wind blew that lantern and the whole place shot up in flames. The men up on the platform with their clean white collar shirts needed a scapegoat.

Instead they got ‘em a little old mule from West Virginia. I just had to be gone and out of sight. I didn’t look back. Nope. Not one time. The past is the past. I’m not stubborn. I just know what’s right. But I still carry the weight of this cart. Reminds me of where I come from. Lugging coal from the morning to the evening.

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog walked until night with sore paws and tender hooves. They devoured stacks of pancakes. They talked. They questioned. Someone barked. Someone said, “Hee-haw.”

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog stopped.

“Hee-haw.”

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog spun around. Standing on the path—just a little south—was a little old mule. Covered with soot. Cart strapped to his back. Stick of hay hanging out his mouth.

“Hey Bear,” said Lion.

“Hey Lion,” said Bear.

“Do you see that little old mule?” asked Lion.

“I think that is a horse,” said Bear.

“You must have on your bear goggles,” said Lion.

Bear looked again and there was a little old mule. Sure enough. Covered with soot. Cart strapped to his back. Stick of hay hanging out his mouth.

“Always got room for a few friends,” said Jeremiah the mule.

Bear, Lion, the kid, and the little dog climbed into the cart. Bear gave Jeremiah a quadruple stack covered in molasses. Paws at rest. Hooves hanging off the back. Hooves going clickety-clack.

Animals out of their cages. Breaking the norm. Rolling on out.

 

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If you want to read more, stay tuned! I will keep you updated about when you can bury your snout in a freshly printed copy. And look out for wild animals with guitars on their backs coming to a town near you. The smell of pancakes will be your first clue.

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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Publish or Perish

I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird about as often as I change my air filters, so basically I haven’t read it since last summer, but one of my favorite chapters is the one on publication. She writes about how it seems like getting published is going to be the biggest day of your life, “You will wake up to your phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel.”

When in fact, as Lamott points out, and as I quickly realized, it is not like that at all. Getting published is sort of like dating. There is a lot of checking your phone because maybe the ringer is off or you went suddenly deaf and then being disappointed. Then telling yourself it is cool, and you know deep down that you are awesome, probably they just didn’t read your essay yet/actually like you as a person. It is fine. There are more words to write. Shorter skirts to wear.

One of my issues with dating is the difficulty in finding someone who likes me as much as I like myself. When my last boyfriend and I broke up, I said, “I just want to be with someone who is more into me.”

“You deserve that,” he said.

He gets credit for not saying, “Good luck,” which is probably what he meant, and what I said when he told me that he really wants to be with someone who is less smart than he is because that would make things less complicated.

Really—obviously—he wasn’t the problem. If I didn’t think I deserved the Blue Angels flyover every time I walked in the door or showed him my new panties, then it would be much easier for me to be happy in relationships, but it would probably make it much harder for me to be a writer. There is a lot of ego in writing. First, I have to assume that people want to know what I have to say enough to actually read. And I have to send my work to publishers and ask them to decide if they want me, and when they say, “No thanks,” I have to assume it is them, not me, and I have to keep on writing.

Sometimes, I might drink a bottle of wine and browse through their latest edition criticizing all the writers they did accept, even though I know deep down that those other writers are just as good, if not better, and it is really just about making some kind of genuine connection. Then I decide to open another bottle and dance around in my underwear to “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar and tell everyone to suck it.

And of course, Anne Lamott is talking about actually publishing a book. For me, it is just publishing short essays about living alone and being a remedial parent in a monthly humor newspaper. When my first piece ran I thought the phone would definitely ring. Dave Barry would probably call to discover the real identity of this fresh new American voice in humor. I would pretend that I didn’t believe it was really him, “Who is this really?”

“It’s really me, Dave!”

We would laugh. Then he would give me the name of his agent and then I would be on Dave Letterman, and he would flirt with me like he does with Julia Roberts, “Oh Dave!”

My dreams were really just a big Dave orgy, probably Dave Mathews was also there involved in some kind of endless jam that went on for so long that I had to take a nap in the middle. When I wake up, Sedaris is sitting in the corner autographing all his best-sellers with the inscription, “Welcome to the club,” and then at the end of it all, I find myself cuddled up with Dave the founder of Wendy’s as he spoon feeds me a Frosty.

In reality, nobody called me. I had to call to get a free copy sent to my mom just so I could get the adoration I knew I deserved. But then I knew I just had to get back to work. Not because I thought it would actually get me anywhere or allow me to quit my job and spend my days going on books tours or reading my essays as the opening act for The Foo Fighters and then letting Dave Grohl run his fingers through my hair backstage, “Oh Dave!” but because I actually like to write.

I like the process of starting with a blank screen and being terrified, and then feeling like I am going to die because I am not clever enough, and I barely understand how to use commas, and then saying, “Bitch, please,” and just starting to type. A few lines ticker back and forth across the top of my screen that are guarded and dishonest, and then I get up and go for a walk. Sometimes I cry when I walk but maybe because I walk through a local cemetery, and then I get an idea, type it in the notes on my phone, jam out to a few more Sturgill Simpson songs, and then come back to my computer and start the process all over again.

Writing is sort of like preparing an enormous, Thanksgiving meal before you know if you will even have any guests. And it gets messy. You have to stick your hand all the way up that turkey’s ass, even though it seems scary, and you are not sure what you will find or how it will make you feel, but then eventually you pull your hand out, get rid of all the junk, and cook that beast. Then you clean up, line it all up on the buffet, and hope—pray—that people will actually show up.

Your mom will be there, of course, and maybe a couple close friends, some of whom will tell you how great the food is even though they didn’t actually seem to eat anything, and you try not to quiz them too much. That random middle-aged guy from Sacramento. He is there. And maybe a writer you have heard of, at least after you look her up, and she has an actual Wikipedia page about her, so that is something. She shows up and tells you she likes your work, and you take that little leftover home and put it on the table next to the new computer that you don’t even know how to use, but you bought because you are a famous writer now, and you just sit down and keep typing.

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Disturbing the Coquinas

This is an essay I wrote last year in response to a call for submissions for memoir from the journal Creative Nonfiction. It is not a humor essay, but it was important for me to write. I did not make the issue (I gave Lee Gutkind a virtual wedgie, imagined myself pushing him in the bushes and stealing his lunch money, and then moved on), so I am posting it here. I like this better. I am in charge here. My story. My voice. My way.

Disturbing the Coquinas

Sometimes when I come home from the beach house, I have so many sharks’ teeth that I find them in the bottom of my suitcases, and they fall out of my pockets and rattle around the dryer like forgotten pennies. The tiny black teeth litter the beach in front of my family’s home. They are not difficult to find; I just have to slow down and look closely at the sand. Usually they are no bigger than a fingernail. I was on the beach with my stepdad a few years ago, lingering and talking as he wrestled a PVC pipe into the sand for evening surf fishing. I leaned down and picked up a small shark tooth, dusted off the sand and held it out for him to see.

“I don’t ever see the big ones out here anymore,” he said.

I wandered around on the beach, just surveying the sand, kicking at shells with my big toe, and then I spotted a tooth the size of a silver dollar. I picked it up and placed it in the interior of my palm, hurrying back to where my stepdad stood tying on a lure, “Like this?” I asked, showing him the tooth and laughing. People find things they shouldn’t on Manasota Key.

Last summer I left my husband in Georgia and took my two kids to the key. I wanted a divorce, but I was scared. I could not see through to the other side, so leaving felt like jumping blindly into the fog. I loaded the kids and our suitcases into the van, slid into the driver’s seat, and took off my wedding ring. I dropped the ring in the coin compartment where it clinked against accumulated change and then looked over my shoulder at the kids strapped in their seats before I backed out of the driveway. Five hours later as I drove over the north bridge, I caught my first view of the Gulf beyond the bright and tidy parking lot of the public beach. I sobbed.

I remembered playing on that beach when I was just a little kid, hot feet hopping sand bags, weaving in and out of sun-tanned adults holding cocktails.  I built sandcastles. I witnessed houses burning down. New ones rising. Grandparents lived and died. I found buckets of sharks’ teeth. All of this prehistory was here before I ever considered getting married. I knew it with one glance at the sparkling turquoise water.

My grandparents on my mother’s side owned a ranch style house on the beach side of the key. The house had a deck on the roof and a modern pebble patio. They also owned a home with a pool across the street on the bay, and I never understood why they chose to live in the smaller house with no pool.  The allure of the Gulf had not yet yanked at my childish tides. They used the bay house mainly for entertaining, and my grandfather kept the garage fridge stocked with cans of soda—Seagram’s Ginger Ale and 7-Up—that he would let me drink straight out of the can. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the fringes of parties, loud laughter pouring in from outside the bedroom where I sat on shag carpet playing Legos. I remember the smell of liquor as I darted out to steal a Triscuit.

I have memories of visiting the key with both my parents as a baby, then I remember being there with just my mom and sister, and then my parents got divorced. My mother must have felt the sanctuary of the key. I played with a little tow-headed girl whose grandparents lived two houses down. We fluttered down the beach, playing house on the sandbags. As adults, we still flutter around each other, kicking up sand. I remember going to the door of her grandparent’s house, asking if she could play. I had no idea that I was knocking at my future, declaring myself a part of the family. My mother eventually married her uncle. Her grandparents became my grandparents. Her cousins became my step-sisters. We were a gaggle of girls, trying to make our own parties in tucked away rooms.

During the day we roamed the beach. We sat on our knees where the tide comes in and dug full fisted into the wet sand. We exposed a rainbow of pastel coquina shells, then watched as they squirmed diligently back under the protective blanket of sand. We moved further out into the breakers and dug down for sand fleas. We brought our hands up with heaping mounds of wet crushed shells and let it filter off slowly to reveal the little grey pearly backs, legs kicking frantically, trying to burrow into our palms. We put them in buckets and declared them families. The largest was a father, then a mother—we named them Sandy and Danny. The smaller ones were their children. We swam out to the sandbar and played like Porpoises, squeaking to each other. When our grandmother came out for her afternoon dip, she held out her arms so we could jump over, perform a trick, and then circle back around to catch a fake fish.

Manasota Key is located on the Southwest coast of Florida. The northern portion of the key—my portion—is in Sarasota County and retains a jungle-like quality, thick with mangroves and dark green vegetation opening onto a fickle beach. Some days the Gulf is calm and wide with clear water that makes the Caribbean ache with jealousy; sometimes it is raging and oppressive, pushing against banks, mocking self-righteous homes who gamble with the tides. Sometimes the waves lap gently, sometimes they crash triumphantly, but the beach always reminds me that I am not in charge. Letting my toes sink into the soft wet sand, staring at the horizon, noting the curve of the earth, I remember that I am standing small on a planet.

The southern portion of the key is in Charlotte County and opens up to concrete and a series of rectangles. Passing over the county line from the north, I squint and reach for my shades as I exit the protective thicket. I am instantly exposed, like exiting backstage into the blinding lights. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a duplex at the Charlotte County end. My older sister, who was in high school, was forced to take the bedroom upstairs next to my mother and stepfather, and I was given a makeshift bedroom in the enclosed garage. There were sliding glass doors on one side and at night raccoons would scurry by or, worse, stop and scratch at the glass. On the other side of my room there were towers of boxes in a space used primarily for storage.

One morning I woke up and scampered up the stairs to find a deserted house. I ran up the next flight and stood in the doorway of my mother’s empty room. My ears rung from the quiet. I ran back down two flights to my storage room, just as my mom and stepdad were coming in through the door, weaving their way through the maze of boxes.

“Where were you?” I asked. My sister was in a car accident. She fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from a date with her boyfriend in Sarasota. Her car went into in a ditch, but she kicked her way out and then pounded on the door of a man’s apartment, blood streaming down her face. At the hospital, she had to get 72 stitches in her head. If she had fallen asleep seconds later, she could have gone off the North Bridge into the intercoastal. I stood at the end of the path of boxes. “You left me here all alone?”

My school bus drove over the South Bridge every morning and afternoon, and sometimes we had to wait for the drawbridge to open for a sailboat with a tall mast.  When we stopped, I climbed up on my knees, dropped my window, and hung my head partially out to stare at the water. There were usually small boats anchored in the shallows, rocking from the wake of the sailboats and yachts passing through to open waters. Sometimes there were porpoises. I knew my route was special, but those instances of recognition were fleeting. By the time I was in junior high, I stopped going out on the beach. I would ride my bike on the street and play in the elevator at the new set of condos built behind our duplex. When we moved off the key and into a smaller apartment in town, I wasn’t sad. I was happy to be out of the basement.

My mom and stepdad still did most of their socializing out on the key with family. As an adult, I see the attractive nuance of that arrangement. My mother’s parents moved away and into a condo down in Key Biscayne, so we spent most of our time at my step grandparents’ home. Our car would crunch into the gravel driveway, and I would run inside to find a hiding place to play, usually with my sisters and cousin. The adults would find cocktails and stand around laughing. That is what I was taught about family. When I interact with other families, those that sit soberly in rooms and talk quietly or not at all, I feel claustrophobic. The generations have shifted, but this is still how we connect. We have cocktails. We don’t sit down.

They started construction on a new home about a half mile down the beach. My cousin and I ran between the houses on the road, pretending we were spies. When a car approached, we hid in the bushes or scampered up the dense tropical driveways, hiding from unsuspecting drivers. We never went on the beach—certainly the most efficient way to walk between the houses—instead we walked the narrow shoulders of the curving beach road. The beach was for tanned old ladies in padded one-piece swim suits. We were girls of the jungle.

One night, my mother and stepdad loaded us into the car after a New Year’s Eve party. Before we got to the south bridge, we were hit head on by a drunk driver. I had a bloody nose, and I smeared it all over my face. I was sure I was dying, so I did my multiplication tables silently to convince myself I didn’t have brain damage. People filed out from the dive bar across the street to help. I remember a lady reaching in the car to pull us out; she lined us up on the curb, little girls caked in blood. As bad as it looked, all of us kids were fine. My mom broke her ankle, and my stepdad shattered his femur bone. He was stuck in the car. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with my sisters as he looked out the passenger window. When they fired up the Jaws of Life to get him out, I covered my eyes with blood-stained hands. I knew even at that moment that he was glad that it was him. My family book-ended the key with accidents. Moments of survival.

After the accident, I was forever tethered to my own mortality. I learned to be afraid, and I applied it to everything: cars, planes, elevators, emotions. When I got home from the hospital, I wouldn’t look in the mirror for several days—I had no lasting injuries—my face was just bruised and puffy. I was scared to go to sleep because I was not sure I would wake up. One night, I dozed off in my mother’s bed, and when I woke up it was completely dark. I thought I had gone blind, so I just silently searched the room for something I could see, and when I found a square of light on the floor coming from underneath the door, I caught my breath.  I wandered around numbly for days—in shock. Eventually I snapped out of the funk, but I was scarred with an odd sense of hypochondria. When I am stressed, I become paralyzed by the fear that I am going to die. Not with some long-standing illness, but that I am just going to drop dead. In an instant. Hit head on.

There were stretches of years between teenage angst and twenties lethargy that I never set foot on the beach. I never touched barefoot to sand; I never dug deep into mud for colorful coquinas. I continued to visit the key to see grandparents as they aged inside the big house on the beach, which had grown quiet, like Gatsby’s after the parties came to an end. The walls sighed slowly, heavily. Outside the windows and open doors, the waves relentlessly swished, gentle at times, roaring at others—waves of seven reminding me: I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. I will always be here.

My absence from the beach meant that it could be rediscovered. I remember staying on the key the week before I was married and taking a friend for a walk on a particularly calm morning.  She walked with wonder. I saw the sanctuary with new eyes. I stopped and looked out at the horizon, smudged gently into the sky, and remembered the magic. We never passed another person on our walk, and we stopped occasionally and waded out into the clear, tranquil water. A few days later I was married.

Once we had kids, I took them to the beach often, and I sat in a chair—the sun baking the tops of my thighs—and watched my son ride the waves, swirling in the middle of foam, momentarily disappearing beneath the surf, causing me to lean forward with my breath held until he surfaced closer to the shore. He stood up, rubbed his eyes, and then leaped back out over the breaking waves to stand with his body facing the shore, looking over one shoulder for the perfect wave. My daughter knelt in the sand at my side playing with collected seashells, calling them families and building sandcastle estates. Occasionally she fluttered to the edge of the breaking waves to rinse her hands or to collect water in colorful buckets, and sometimes she sat and let waves crash over her legs, digging her hands down into the wet sand, disturbing colonies of coquinas.

At sunset, the adults found their way onto the beach, and we all mingled in the sand, ice clinking in high ball glasses, the kids weaving in and out like they were doing a Maypole dance, kicking up sand. Then we wandered back up to the house and stood around in the kitchen, grabbing at food, refilling our drinks, loud laughter pouring into bedrooms where piles of sisters, brothers, and cousins lay on blankets across the floor, watching movies. The waves crashing outside triumphantly.

I stayed at the beach with my kids for two weeks before I went home and filed for divorce. My family came and went; we celebrated the Fourth of July. Before they arrived, everyone knew that I was trying to decide whether or not to pick up the axe, to chop down my family tree. Word had spread, not insidiously but like a whisper of “timber” that rustles the leaves, and the trees nod, knowing what they must do next. With each conversation I became more confident. My cousin and I walked within sight of my kids playing in the surf, keeping the fossil collector’s pace, our heads down, looking for shells. She told me she was sorry. I bent to pick up a seashell. “Look at this one,” I said, holding out my palm. As she examined my shell, I added, “I just don’t love him.” We looked out towards the horizon, squinting into the sun, not needing to say anything more.

Later I walked the beach with one of my sisters. We dodged a wave, our feet synchronously searching for more compact sand, and I confessed, “One day I was standing in my closet, hanging up clothes, and I thought that I might have a chance for a better life if he died.” The thought terrified me when it had happened, maybe a year before. I remember clutching an empty dress, not sure who I was anymore, saying it to another person made me shudder.  She stopped and looked at me, wiped a strand of brown hair away from her face, and hugged me. We kept walking. The Gulf ebbed and flowed at our side.

The day before I packed the car to head home to Georgia, I stood on the beach, my toes sinking in the soft wet sand. I watched my kids running towards the surf and then darting away from incoming waves, just like sandpipers. On that particular day the beach had a wide trail of crushed shells set between the soft sand and the wet sand from the lapping waves. I walked back and forth, head bent down, picking up sharks’ teeth and dropping them into my own cupped hand.  I stood up straight and looked out at the horizon towards a line of dark clouds that interrupted the otherwise seamless blue. I closed my fist tightly.

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Waste it Wisely

This is terrifying.

This is terrifying.

Sometimes I have to use the men’s bathroom at the school where I work because I don’t have time to wait the 90 seconds it will take for the women’s bathroom to be free, and I feel like this could be a symptom of a larger problem in my life. When I was younger, I prided myself on always being punctual. I was usually even early because my life was empty and meaningless, and I was completely unsuccessful. Making time to go to the bathroom was not an issue. I remember I had a boyfriend who chose not to drink excess liquids before taking road trips because he did not want to waste time stopping to use the bathroom. He would tell me this as I slid into the passenger seat slurping the last sips of my 32 ounce diet coke.  Road trips, like legislation, are based on the lowest common denominator, which is often me, so really he was just delayed and thirsty.

I recently took an online quiz called “How Productive Are You?” demonstrating on its own—just by logging in—that I am not productive at all. One of the key areas that need improvement for me is that I have too many distractions. The website suggests I keep an interrupter’s log, which intrigues me, not because I think it will make me more productive but because it allows me to put the blame on others in writing and in chart form. The log asks for the name of the interrupter, the time, and a box for me to check if it was a valid interruption. I find this so exciting that I might quit my job just to spend all my time cataloging my daily interruptions. 6:34 p.m. the cat “jumped” in the bathtub with my son and then frantically skid across every dry surface in the house interrupting my game of Trivia Crack. Not valid. After a week of keeping the log, I am supposed to analyze and conquer my interruptions. One way to conquer interruptions is to pre-empt the interruption by holding routine meetings. This way instead of interrupting me, the people/cats will learn to save all non-urgent issues until this meeting.

I made all my students take the quiz, too, mainly because I did not have anything else planned for the day, and they all scored higher than me. I told them they are liars and they must have cheated, but then I realized that they just don’t have that many distractions. Mainly because I let them go to the bathroom in the middle of class. Sometimes I will ask a compelling question and then one of them will raise their hand, and I get excited thinking that an engaging discussion will ensue, but it is just a kid asking to go to the bathroom. They are extremely efficient. Also, I am not sure being in my class keeps them from accomplishing their life goals There are students who could be running multi-million dollar companies on their laptops (or from the bathroom) while I draw diagrams on the board of the two houses in Wuthering Heights.

There is a guy I work with who likes to say, “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day,” and I usually try to do the math because I feel like I am wasting a significant amount of my 24 hours. For starters, I am asleep for at least six to eight of those hours, and then I am at work for another eight hours monitoring other people’s bathroom visits, and then I need to subtract the hours when I am drunk or on my phone, which leaves me with maybe five good hours a day. Then I have to find time to schedule meetings with my kids and the cat and then pray that there is enough time left after all the interruptions have been clearly checked as not valid so that I can watch Netflix while curled up on the couch crying about how nobody will ever love me.

The real issue—that leaves me in a general state of panic—is not the allotment of time per day, but the amount of days that I have left, divided by the number of things that I have yet to accomplish. I am not an expert mathematician, but I think this comes out to a negative number or a radical. In a few short months I will turn 40. At this point I have to make some important decisions, like how much of that precious time do I want to waste standing in line for the bathroom? I have to start thinking about my lowest common denominator. I have a job, two kids, and a bladder, so I have to figure out how to make all of these things fit in with my current life goals, which include finding a meaningful relationship, making something out of my writing career (like maybe a fleet of paper airplanes), and fulfilling my dream of going to a swim-up bar (which really takes care of the bladder issue on its own).

Another goal that I plan to accomplish on my 40th birthday is getting my first tattoo. My main reasons for not getting a tattoo up to this point were more related to commitment issues than preserving an image, but when I am 40 there is only so much forever left. I also apply this to my dating life. Commitment doesn’t seem quite so scary now because I don’t have to promise my whole life to someone, just what’s left of it. It is only like half of forever, and if we do the math . . .

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