Thursday, August 28, 2008

dog days

It's not how hot the summers are here as much as how long they go on. Temperatures started topping 100 degrees in May this year, and for a little while it's bracing. You think you'll fight it out, but by August you are desperate and the sun seems to hang smug and sullen at dead noon all day long. There's a vicious, personal quality to the heat of these late summer days, like summer has it's teeth in your neck and it's going to shake you till you're limp, wring the last bit of juiciness out of you before, if we're lucky, it dies in late October.

On Saturday I went to a house-warming party of sorts at Scarlett's new house. Lorna, the owner of the house, was there, and our friend Amy Jean. The three of us sat on the couch while Scarlett wrestled a rented snake down the drain of the bath-tub, which is clogged, and which Lorna, for reasons obscure, does not which to take up with the landlord. It was valiant effort, and she said she didn't need any help, which everybody knew wasn't true, but everybody for the moment wanted to sit down in the cool of the front room. After an uncomfortable while, Lorna quietly got her things together and fled the house. Amy Jean and I stayed.

Amy Jean and I are alike in small ways that surprise me. We are the same height, and built the same. We both pull our hair over our shoulders and play with the end like nervous children. We both look up the answers to our questions. Amy Jean has a way of never quite meeting your eyes or answering your questions, though what she says is always interesting, and I wonder if I am like that, too.

Amy Jean, like me, is interested in the body. Today she is telling me about the physiology of laughter. She tells me "grotesque laughter" is the term of art for the laughter you laugh when things are too horrible. She says the endorphins from laughter protect the brain from permanent damage by painful events.

In June Amy Jean was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Doctors caught the cancer very early. They destroyed her thyroid with a radiated pill and now she will have to take hormones for the rest of her life, but she is alive and doing well. She laughed the day of the radiation and the day before and the day after. Come to think of it, I have never seen Amy Jean cry.

I have never seen my mother cry either. Cancer treatment was not as advanced in the 80's as it is now. The doctors at NIH put a scalpel up my mother's nose to cut out the lemon-sized tumor deep in her head, coring her brain like an apple. She survived. She would be different forever, in subtle ways, like someone with three quarters of a brain might be, but she lived and that was good.

After the surgery we went to see her in her room in the hospital. She laughed so hard while we were there that the hospital pudding went up into her recently-violated nasal cavities and came out her nose. I sat on her bed and laughed with her while my father wept and my brother was silent.

At first, Amy Jean did not want the radiation. She was going to cure herself with cabbage and kale and Good Thoughts, but she was very sick and everyone said she should act fast. Her long black hair has white hairs in it now. They look like stars in the sky at the North Pole at midnight. Everything about Amy Jean is so lovely and so cool. Her eyes are the color of beach glass, blue green and full of light.

Dog days. Last vicious days of summer. Spare us. I show Amy Jean the rash between my fingers. Tiny shoals of blisters that dry up and peel away just to bloom again on the next layer of skin below. "I thought it was poison ivy," I say. "But poison ivy wouldn't keep coming back like this."

She takes my hand in her cool hand and turns it over in the light. "It's eczema," she says. "I have it, too. Look."

She holds her hand next to mine, and sure enough it is the same. I notice how much alike our hands are. We have the same kind of skin.

Scarlett comes in the room with her hair in her face. She has lost her battle with the rented snake. She is angry at Lorna for leaving. She is angry. She is on the verge of tears. Scarlett cries often and easily, hot little floods of crying. Amy Jean and I let our coolness wash over her now. We tell her to stop with the snake and chalk it up to a valiant effort and call the landlord. Scarlett is afraid to make Lorna angry in case she loses the room in the house. We tell her everything will be OK, because everything always is OK, even when it isn't.

Maybe we're wrong. Maybe we should let her cry. Maybe we should cry with her and scream and smash glass and throw furniture. Maybe one of these teasing gray humid morning we've had all week will turn into a thunderstorm and crack the sky over the city and rain down a torrent that rips up all but the deepest roots while the rest sweeps into the river in a flood of trash, all the way down to the gulf and the ocean.

Maybe we should all be crying. Maybe it's the effort of not crying that is killing us. Maybe the tears are building in our blood until our bodies turn on us and kill us. Things are rough and only getting rougher, and the promise of relief is just enough to keep you here but not enough to cool your face. That's how you feel in Texas at the end of the summer.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

junk hunting

You know it's going to be a hot one when the cicadas get started before noon. Scarlett is back in Texas, home from New York on the advice of friends like me who said sometimes the smartest thing you can do is bail on a bad time. In the weeks since her return she's been abject and elated by turns, her bad days just bad enough to scare the people who know how bad things can get.

Twice a week she comes over and eats lunch with me, which is good for me because I am at the point of obsession with work that I will forget to eat if I'm not reminded, and good for her because twice a week she gets free food. For the first few weeks she surfed from couch to couch, but now she has a part-time job at a coffee shop and our friend Lorna cleared out her junk room to give her a place to stay. So, that's good.

This afternoon she comes over for lunch, and I know she's not happy almost before I hear her feet on the porch. She's sad, she says, because of all the boxes sitting packed in her room, and nothing to put them in. "I feel like I'm living in a fucking squat with my mattress on the floor," she says.

I listen for her breath and hear it where I knew I would, high and rapid in her chest, making her heart beat like a pair of desperate wings. Her voice shakes with the effort of containing herself.

We get on Craigslist and find someone who is giving away a futon frame. The post says it's out by the curb, free to the first person to roll up and take it away. Scarlett has borrowed her mother's car for the afternoon, so we drive over to the address in the listing, a blank little street in a treeless part of town. It's right in the hottest part of the day, and the air-conditioning doesn't work in the car, so we drive with the windows down and say as little as possible.

Last week I had to sit Scarlett down and say Listen. You can't come over to my house in the middle of the day and yell at me. I'm too busy and too tired and my patience is at too low an ebb.

And she said, but I'm not even mad at you.

And I said, but when you're mad, you're mad at everyone. You're an equal opportunity hater. I might not be the one you're yelling at, but I'm the one you're yelling at, so chill.

She did chill for a few days. Around me, anyway. And I let myself hope, again, that this meant she was feeling better and now everything was going to be OK. When you love someone, you have to hope for things like that.

I read the address out for her and sure enough the futon frame is still there by the curb. It's a nice one. Well-made, substantial. Too substantial. It is never going in the back seat of the car. We try for a bit anyway, putting the back seats down and trying to twist the frame this way and the other way. The sun is right overhead, dead hot and mercilessly bright. We give up and put the frame down by the curve, stand wiping our faces off in the alley with the tails of our t-shirts.

"Nope," Scarlett says tightly.


We get back in the car. "This is such shit," Scarlett says as we pull away. "I'm so sick of not having things I need."

Scarlett's never been good at hanging onto things. She loses apartments, jobs, lovers, friends, and she never takes it lightly, the way some people do who've been losing things so long they've got the knack of it. For Scarlett, it always seems to hurt.

"I guess it's back to the shake joint," she says now, knuckles white on the steering wheel. "That's what everybody keeps saying. 'Why don't you just dance?' Why does that always have to be the answer to everything?"

"It's not the answer," I say, carefully. "It's an option. It's quicker and easier than some of the other options."

"But it's not always easier."

"No. It's not always easier."

"I need glasses. I need my filling replaced. I have warrants. I don't know what else I can do."

I don't know either. It is convenient to walk off the street and get hired and make a few hundred dollars the same day. The convenience is undeniable. But.

"It's almost too convenient," Scarlett says, reading my mind. "It's like...this pretty little toy with sharp edges."

"It's a compromise. You have to understand the compromise before you make it."

"I don't think I'm very good at compromises."

It's true. She's not. Sometimes that's a good trait. Myself, I tend the other way. If my ends seem to be in sight, I will endure far more than there is any point in enduring. I've lived years of my life that way. Scarlett knows this. There's a reason we're friends.

"If you start dancing again, you should know exactly what you're doing it for," I offer. "Dancing for survival is the worst. That's when you really feel stuck. You have to have one thing in your life that you really love. At least one thing you care about so much that it makes everything worth it. You have one goal and every day you do one thing to meet that goal, and as long as you do that one thing you can feel OK."

Some of this I believe to be good advice and some of it I know is superstition, but I still believe it and it's all I've got so I hope it's something. She frowns like maybe she's listening. "Look," she says, suddenly excited.


"A dresser!"

We pull over. There by the street, a five-drawer bureau stands next to a row of garbage cans. It's sadder than it looked at first. We walk around it, fingering the peeling veneer until a sheet if it pulls off in our hands.

"This is trash," Scarlett says. "Somebody is throwing this away for a reason."

We stand there for a second longer, trying to make the dresser into something it isn't, trying to make it into something somebody could use to make a life. The sun wants to melt us like wax.

"Oh, well," Scarlett says. "The last thing I need is another sad piece of trash in my room to look at every day when I wake up. Oh, well. Oh, well."

We get back in the car.

I tell her we'll figure it out. I don't know what I mean by this. I don't know what it is, even, let alone how we are going to figure it out. I just know that sooner or later things will be better and sooner, probably. Sooner than she thinks.

I've seen so many things slip through her hands. I've seen her start her life all over more than once, except you never really start your life over. Those cardboard boxes drift from house to house, from friends' garages, from the backs of cars, from rented storage rooms, and there never seems to a place to put everything away. I don't really know why. As old a friend as I am, I don't really understand why her life is made of the scraps of other people's lives. I don't know when she'll be happy, but I do hope it's soon. If you love someone, you have to have hope.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

with the devil in the woods

I've been trying to teach myself to sleep again; I seem to have lost the knack. I get tired, but when I lie down my eyes don't close. I practice breathing: in for four, out for four, hold out for two. It works like a charm, but only if you remember to do it, and keep doing it. My mind tends to skip off like a stone. I have a lot to think about.

One day a while ago, I get a text from the Satanist. "Want to go for a walk?" Sounds fun, so I bike over to his house in the late afternoon. I think we'll stroll around the block a couple of times and call it a night, but he's got these graphite walking sticks and headlamps and we are going for a Walk.

We cut through the neighborhood a long way, and onto the municipal hiking trail and across the river. We get into the trees and the sun goes down and it is quite dark. I don't remember what we talk about. My mind keeps wandering and I am probably not saying much, but I'm having a nice time. It comes out of the blue when the Satanist tells me he fantasizes about fucking me in front of my boyfriend. He says it so casually it takes me a second to think about it, and then I say, "Yuck."



I want this line of conversation to end, and I don't want to return to it. I don't want to be riding the brakes on sexual tension all evening, and especially not out here in the dark, in the woods. I'm not scared, but it sounds like hard work, and if I'm going to work I want to get paid.

Everything changes after this and it keeps getting darker, because that's what happens at night.

"Where are we?" he asks, after a while.


"You were leading."

"I was?"

"I'm following you."


So now we are lost, but I can still see the lights from downtown and we keep heading towards them. We cross a bridge to the right side of the river again, but once we're on the bank nothing looks right. We're by a busy road that I ought to know but I don't see any signs, and I could swear there was no road here. I must have been here in the daylight a thousand times, but it doesn't feel like it. To my right I see downtown, closer and brighter than before. So that's good. To my left I see a stretch of dark highway and lights and cars that could be anywhere, any city, any time. The Satanist points left. "This way," he says.

When I look left I don't know where I am. I feel dizzy, like the sky is pressing down on the top of my head and my knees are going soft. I point to the right, towards beautiful, glowing, comforting downtown. Once we get there there'll be other people and all the streets will have names. We'll know exactly where we are and his house is just a stone's throw away. We'll say goodbye on his front porch and I'll get on my bike and ride home and everything will be OK. "This way," I say.

He grabs my hand. I pull back. We look at each other the best we can. It is dark now, completely dark, and the only lights are cars on the road zooming past, too bright and then gone again. "You're being weird," he says. "You've been somewhere else all night."

I start to nod. This is true. I've been somewhere else for weeks, actually. But he's not done. He's raising his voice, and this is the first time I realize that we are actually fighting.

"You're in fucking space and I don't even want to be around you right now but I can't get away from you."

I feel a sweet relief. If what we both want is to get away from each other then it's easy. I point back to the right again. "I'll go that way."

"Fine," he says. "Give me my shit." He snatches the walking stick out of my hand, and the lamp. He's angry and rough and it's the first time I really feel scared of him. I feel like a big dog just snarled at me. I'm glad I'm going my way, not further into the dark with him. I turn around and don't look back.

That was weeks ago. We haven't talked again, and I don't know if we will. I don't think about it much. I have a lot on my mind. I still can't sleep.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

the lunch meeting

A few weeks ago I was offered a short-term consulting contract in an area not unrelated to my current pursuits. The woman who offered me the contract is a contact I know through the dayjob. The only job, now, I guess. The Job.

I respect her enormously. She is not much older than me, and she has a very difficult job. She is ambitious and straight-forward and concerned for the welfare of mankind, and I am flattered that she wants my two cents. On Monday we meet for lunch. I have a stack of papers, two notebooks and a clipboard.

She arrives 20 minutes late and frazzled. Hard week, she says. Crunch time. We exchange expressions of sympathy.

I circle things and underline things and ask questions.How about this? I say. And, Let's be specific. Can we say this?

I notice she isn't eating, hasn't touched a thing, and then abruptly, she pushes her plate away. "Let's go my house," she says.

I say yes, although this is not a particularly good idea. I haven't been sleeping well, and I am running on coffee and enthusiasm purely. On her sofa, my thoughts, so carefully arranged, begin to unravel. We are no longer talking about the particular job I am here to do, but about the nature of the work itself, and the nature of things in general.

"It's hard," she says. "It's hard to get taken seriously. Don't you think? When you're younger than everyone else and you're a girl, and people think you're attractive? It's awkward. It's weird. Doesn't it bother you?"

It probably used to. A lot of things used to bother me about the way I might look to other people. Being young and a girl was part of it. I didn't worry about being attractive that much, I guess, because I didn't think I was. I worried more about my scruffiness, my way of always looking like I just rolled out bed, after sleeping in my clothes. I worried somebody important would look down and see the heels of my shoes held together with duct tape and upholstery nails and know I was a fraud.

"You must know what I mean," she says.

I nod. Maybe it was stripping that cured me of that particular strain of self-consciousness. At the club, it mattered what I looked like, so I learned to put on make-up. I grew my hair long and learned to curl it in big, loose waves like a centerfold. I learned to know which looks from men meant they thought I was pretty, and which looks meant they thought I was pretty but not pretty enough, and which looks meant I was an ugly cow they wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. I learned that their opinions were worth exactly what I could extract out of their wallet, and no more.

When I do the work I do now, I have no age and no gender. I want to look whichever way will get me in the door fastest, which generally means neat, demure, and slightly frumpy -- a look I call Sunday School Teacher Applies for a Bank Loan. As long as I get where I want to go, people are free to think I'm pretty, or not, or smart, or not, and if they under-estimate me, well, that's not necessarily to my disadvantage. Age and sex are just masks, anyway. Not masks we get to choose, but still, masks.

"I pretend I'm a forty-year-old dude and I'm just tricking them into thinking I'm a 28-year-old woman," I tell her. "Then I feel sneaky and smart."

She laughs, which is good. I want her to laugh. It's nice that she likes me.

"You want to get high?" she asks.


It's a bad idea, and I know it. I'm so tired, my thoughts are held together with string. Seven seconds and the THC hits my brain, things start to unravel. I tap on my clipboard with the butt of my pen and we try again. It's useless. The problems we are supposed to solve start spiraling outward. The solutions retreat. Before I know it she is telling me the plot to The Golden Compass and we are talking about organizations of people as living bodies, with individuals as their genetic material. Then I am explaining the multiple-mutation theory of inherited cancer susceptibility -- a gene has to mutate a number of times before it becomes cancerous, but you can inherit an already mutated gene that is like a tiny ticking bomb, so that only a single mutation is required, just one, and then: oncosis.

"Oh my god," she says. "My boyfriend is a cancerous gene. He's mutated too many times, I think. He's broken."

I know her boyfriend. He is a charming drunk who goes home with the hottest girl from every party. I respect him tremendously as a professional in this field that we are all in. As a person, less.

I excuse myself and go to the bathroom and when I come back she is crying. She takes her glasses off and wipe at the tears with her fingers. "I'm leaving him," she says. "He'll never be OK. I thought I could fix him, but I can't."

I nod. I have had my own share of unfixable men. I am myself a pre-cancerous gene, probably. Too many more divisions and my structure might begin too change. But all cells are pre-cancerous, I guess. Given enough time, enough adverse events.

"I'm proud in a way, I guess," she says. "I held everything together with hope for years, but I don't have any hope any more. I really thought I could help."

She bows her head. Later I will wonder why I didn't just hug her. It's not like I'm averse to hugging. Hugs are cool. But for tears I hold still, like I would hold still for a hummingbird. It doesn't seem to me that grief always needs to be comforted. So often the pro forma gestures of comfort seem like the would-be comforter's own discomfort. Here, pat-pat, everything's fine, stop crying, please stop. And then the crying person is suposed to say, yes, OK, thank you, I feel better now. And stop.

Other people's crying doesn't bother me. The tears we weep from grief and joy are chemically distinct from the tears we cry when we get dust in our eyes -- they have stress hormones in them, and endorphins, and birthing hormones and orgasm hormones and falling-in-love hormones. Which is to say what everybody already knows, that crying is how we squeeze the pain out, deliver ourselves, and gain release.

I hate to see people get hurt, but I think I might like seeing people cry. Crying has always been hard for me. When I was sixteen or seventeen I learned to induce tears by inflicting pain on myself. It was an accidental discovery, a blind instinct. In certain states of unbearable feeling I found out I could cut my thigh with the tips of a pair of nail scissors. The pain alone didn't bring the tears on; it was the sight of the blood that never failed to shock me, and then I would cry. I would be wracked with crying, and afterwards I would feel dreamy and sweet and usually fall asleep. You can still see the scars. When I started dancing I was afraid people would ask me about them, but no one ever did.

Sometimes the best comforter is to see the pain and know it's there, that bright streak of blood that says, yes, you are hurt. Some hopes have to die. Sometimes the structure of our hope becomes malignant, and it had better die than keep dividing.

I try to hold the space. I sit quietly and give her all of my attention. She cries and cries, and then she takes a long breath as the endorphins kick in and do their work, and I see her shoulders settle down, I see her chest rise and her belly soften and then she smiles.

I don't leave right away, but I put my stack of papers and my two notebooks and my clipboard back in my bag. We go onto the patio. She shows me her plants, names them for me. We take her dog outside and throw a ball. But I don't stay too long, because people who have cried need their rest.

I worry she'll feel self-conscious about it later, so I'm happy when I get an e-mail that says, "Sorry we didn't get more done. Next time. I had a good time, though."

I had a good time, too.

Friday, August 01, 2008

bake sale

Ok, this is it -- the closest thing to a virtual lap-dance that I can devise for you. After extensive taste-testing with my friends and loved ones, I have discovered The One True Perfect Brownie recipe. (And its companion, the One True Perfect Blondie Recipe.) I now make the baking mix available to you online through my Etsy store.

These are seriously, truly delicious. I've been taking them everywhere I go for the last month and no one has failed to freak out over their dense flavor and preternatural gooiness. The chocolate brownie is dark, intense chocolate and the blondie is an incredible butterscotch flavor.

All proceeds go toward my basic expenses so I can keep working on the dayjob for another month or two and not have to look for honest work. If there is anything left over after my basic expenses are covered, I will pay off the hospital in Colorado where they cut my tummy open last summer. (Insurance took care of most of the costs, but alas, not all.)

Mention the blog at checkout for $2 off purchase price.