Brighton Beach

The following is an essay that I am currently revising in preparation to share with my writers’ group. Enjoy!

We ripped off the top of my rusty Geo Tracker and hopped in, not sure of the destination. Heather, Carissa, and I took turns choosing songs on my ipod, each one full of adolescent lust – an ache for attention with the dull throbbing of discontentedness. As we listened and sang, we fell more in love with the night.

It was a clear night and the sky reminded me of sailors in the fifties – navy uniforms that made hearts thud in anticipation. The stars were brighter and dustier than I had seen in a year, full of the promise of summer’s arrival. The evening air had traces of the day’s earlier humidity and we welcomed it as it pummeled the bare skin of our arms. It was the night of my high school graduation and the three of us ignored the loud houses we passed, containing my red-faced peers sucking down cheap beer. The city was full of kids ready to move on to the next step. It didn’t matter what came next, as long as it didn’t include the dingy, noisy lockers of high school. Before any of us had felt the crazed spontaneity of a drunken night, we were content with our innocent endeavors. The most toxic thing about our Friday nights were the lattes purchased at the coffee shop while we wasted the gas money our parents had given us, swirling around the tri-city area.

As the engine churned away miles, we passed memories back and forth. We agonized over lost relationships and slid gossip across an unseen table. We wondered what would happen in three months when I left for college and they stayed behind to finish high school.

“Ashley, don’t worry. We’ll visit every other weekend,” Heather said. “It’s not like there’s anything to do in Menasha.”

“Yeah,” Carissa said. “You can show us around the big city that is Stevens Point and tell us what it’s like to be in college.”

Smiling to myself, I imagined a cramped dorm room and the idea of big pit classes with cranky professors in argyle. I was looking forward to the independence, though the idea scared me a bit.

“Heather, remember the time we were camping with my family and we stole my mom’s wine coolers after she went to sleep?” I changed the subject.

“Omigod that was so funny!” Heather shrieked, then told Carissa the story.

We talked about our first kisses and blushed, remembering the faces of those boys. We pondered how eye colors changed and tried to define what it felt like to be in love.

“It’s exhausting,” Heather said. “It’s beautiful, but I hate feeling like I depend on Jim, it makes me feel crazy.” She paused, watching her hand grabbing at the air. “It’s overwhelming – obsessive and time consuming, but it smothers you just right.”

Carissa was staring beyond the car, watching a couple walk lazily with fingers intertwined. “It’s perfection. It’s like you have all the puzzle pieces and you can accomplish everything.”

I paused to think of what I knew I love. I knew enough to know I had never been in love. I had dated a few boys, nothing very serious, but each time I let myself get carried away.  “I think of an hourglass,” I said. “My brain empties, but my heart fills up.”

After driving around for an hour, Heather decided she wanted to go swimming. “It’s frickin’ hot,” she said. “Ashley, take us to the beach.”

“Heather, you do realize that the beach is probably closed, right?” Carissa asked.

“Well screw that. I want to swim.” Heather was the youngest of us. Spunky and stubborn, she was never afraid to mouth off to her mother or to tell her boyfriend he was being a moron.

So I drove to the beach, which was, in fact, closed. It was ridiculous to think that a lake could be closed. A chain link fence was all that blocked us from the cool water. Heather jumped out the back seat of the car. “I’ll meet you in there.” She walked over to the fence and found footing in the links. “The beach is open when I say it is.”

Carissa and I stood behind, waiting for Heather to leap off the other side before climbing ourselves. While we fumbled over, she stood impatiently.

“Imma beat you there!” Heather exclaimed, running and pulling her shirt over her head. Carissa skipped out of her jeans. I peeled off my tank top. Thundering into the water, we let out girlish squeals, not expecting our skin to be met with such shocking coldness.

In a few seconds, we grew quiet as our bodies adjusted to the water. Eventually it felt warm and didn’t seem to mind that the three of us were in nothing but bras and panties. It welcomed our splashes as we floated on our backs and looked at the stars.

“When I was little, I used to think stars were crumbs from the moon, “I said, breaking the silence.

“Ashley, you sound like a crackhead,” Heather said.

“Shut up, Heather.” Carissa pushed her underwater.

“Ya bitch!” Heather spat when she surfaced.

While we splashed and laughed, I paused momentarily. Remember this moment, I told myself. I tried to soak in everything about the instant – the far off blinking buoys, early summer’s sticky yawn, the sandy clinging to my ankles, and the shimmering laughter of my two best friends. Soon, adulthood would be upon me and I would no longer be able to enjoy childlike moments deserving to be cast in porcelain. I wished suddenly that I had an album full of the last year: the Friday nights spent in party dresses, eating pancakes and crepes at IHOP, disgusted by the taste of lingonberries, exchanging Christmas gifts while pretending to be drunk off of sparkling grape juice, groaning with laughter as Heather sang Disney tunes and danced with her cat, the night we painted Heather’s room, only to have the project turn into a colorful fight, with us hurling fistfuls of paint that left flakes of green and yellow in our hair. I inhaled as deeply as I could, as if I could savor the flavor of adolescence and girlhood all in one gulp.

An hour later, we stepped out of the water drenched with moonlight. We picked up whatever clothes we could find, not bothering to give the right shirt or bottom to the right girl. When we came to the fence we threw the heap of clothing to the other side, pausing for the moment when the heavy jeans and t-shirts were silhouetted in the streetlight. We climbed the fence, no longer talking or laughing. All I could do was breathe in the summer air and smile to myself. In the car, I turned on a song that we all knew the words to. Together we sang out, “Someday you will find me caught beneath the landslide, in a champagne supernova in the sky, a champagne supernova, ‘cause we don’t believe that they’re gonna get away from the summer, but you and I will never die, the world’s still spinning around and we don’t know why…

On My Amazon Recommendations

For Valentine’s Day earlier this year, Bill got me a Kindle. It was actually a Valentine’s Day/Birthday gift, but it sounds better if I just say it was Valentine’s Day gift.  (Come on boyfriend, you should be showering me with gifts every chance you get.) I was thrilled to get it, and it’s since become my single favorite object. Every now and then I’ll swoon over how wonderful it is and I tell Bill, “I just love it so much. I want to tell everyone about it.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that I use it everyday or that I carry it with me everywhere I go. I’ve only forgotten it twice, and both times, I found myself stranded without reading material and having a minor panic attack until I realized I could read books with the Kindle app on my phone.

Since I do most of my reading on my Kindle, Amazon has a good record of the books I like. To find new books to read, I usually look at their recommendations for me. Chuck Klosterman, Chelsea Handler, Tina Fey, Stephen Clarke, Amy Sedaris, Kathy Griffin, Augusten Burroughs, Sarah Silverman, Elizabeth Gilbert…the list varied quite a bit. Having decided to really dive into the personal narrative experience, I wanted to see what other women were writing. The list presented to me seemed pretty unpromising. While Chelsea Handler might be a good guilty pleasure read (ie, when I want to feel morally superior to somebody who documents one night stands and her weird obsession with midgets), she’s not somebody whose work I hope to emulate. Tina Fey, also, while charming and hilarious, has gained popularity for her work not as a writer, but as a comedian, as did Chelsea Handler, Amy Sedaris, Kathy Griffin, and Sarah Silverman. And actually, I find the latter four irritating. (Just because she’s David’s sister, Amy does not get my affection.) Also, I hate Augusten Burroughs, and if there’s a way I can block him from every showing up on my Amazon recommendations list, I’d love to learn.

What’s frustrating is that female writers have a difficult time being funny without looking like bimbos. I brought this up to Bill once, and he asked me what I would think if I found an essay written by David Sedaris had actually been written by a woman. The fact is that it would still be good. His essays are funny and self-deprecating without trying too hard, because while he laughs at himself, he also realizes his error. I’m thinking of the first essay in Courduroy and Denim, “Us and Them”. He writes about his fascination with a family in his childhood neighborhood who didn’t have a television. He comments on how strange it must be to grow up like that, not knowing how and when to do things. They’re so clueless, in fact, that they go trick or treating the day after Halloween. His mother makes him and his sisters get their own candy to share with the Tomkeys so they don’t feel as if they’re in the wrong. In a desperate attempt to save his good candy, David stuffs as many candy bars in his mouth as he can. His mother comes in his room to find him with chocolate falling out of his mouth, and she tells him, “You should look at yourself, I mean really  look at yourself.”

…it was hard to shake the mental picture snapped by her suggestions: here is a boy sitting on a bed, his mouth smeared with chocolate. He’s a human being, but also he’s a pig, surrounded by trash and gorging himself so that others may be denied. Were this the only image in the world, you’d be forced to give it your full attention, but fortunately there were others. This stagecoach, for instance, coming round the bend with a  cargo of gold. This shiny new Mustang convertible. This teenage girl, her hair a beautiful mane, sipping Pepsi through a straw, one picture after another, on and on until the news, and whatever came on after the news.

The essay entertains you by creating this funny image of a child, but it also illustrates the ugly selfishness of humans and how we find both distraction  and solace from our hideous selves in television. It’s brilliant!

Try to find something that works on multiple levels in a Chelsea Handler book. I dare  you. It’s self-deprecating to be self-deprecating. It doesn’t provoke thoughts beyond, “Yeah, I guess midgets are pretty entertaining.” And I guess you could say that’s a difference between a silly book and a literary book – it does more than entertain a reader.

I’ve since read a few collections of essays by women – both of Sloane Crosley’s books, Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, Elisabeth Eaves, Sarah Vowell, Lucy Grealy. Those are books I’d recommend. (For a point of reference, I would not recommend Emma Forrest or Laurie Notaro.) I’m not saying every piece by these women is magnificent. I’m not saying every piece David Sedaris writes is magnificent.

I’m not expecting perfection. I’d just like to see a female essayist write with intelligent humor. But it might be an entirely different obstacle to overcome: are women who are self-deprecating automatically seen as bimbos? Can a woman poke fun at herself without looking incompetent and undeserving of respect? Or does the problem lie in the fact that women’s experiences are generally perceived as sillier than those of men? Do I have time to even begin discussing this? Not really, so I’ll leave this post unfinished and return to it at a later time.

Dear Jackass

I’m in the process of moving. Like most people, I hate the idea of packing everything up because it requires a lot of time and energy. I do, however, love the necessity of going through everything to see what objects I once deemed necessary to hang on to. I found that I had made nice folders containing old syllabi, class readings, writing exercises, and manuscripts from classes I took at UW-Milwaukee. The class folder I just went through was from my Intro to Fiction course. Me writing fiction is a silly thing when I think about it. The true fiction that I wrote seems very silly. I never have a clear picture of where I want my fiction to go, much less a greater moral or deeper truth to the piece. Anything readers claimed to have found in my fiction was a product of their active imaginations and literally nothing I had intended. I sort of felt like I was playing a joke on the readers. “Haha, this piece is about nothing. Good luck finding meaning in it!” I wonder if I’m the only writer to feel like that. It’s been a while since I’ve written fiction, but I remember just letting the story go where it wanted to. 

I was a moderator on a fiction board for a writing forum. I had posted a story about a guy who kept pacing back and forth on a street, popping quarters into parking meters, only to be deeply disturbed when he saw his ex-lover walking in a scarlet dress with her fiance. The penultimate moment was when he dropped a red bead from his pocket onto the street. Readers in the forum claimed there was this deep significance – lots to do with the Catholic church (seriously?) and a wandering soul. I was just like, “Yeah, that’s an interesting read on it.” In reality, I had just thought it was a cool image – this crazy guy obsessed with saving people, however little the action was, then finally casting aside the woman he never could save.

Okay, that’s actually kind of a cool concept. I still don’t know how they got the Catholic church involved.

Other than the joke-fiction I wrote, most of what I tried to pass as fiction was really just personal narrative. This gave a lot of the pieces really emotionally-charged details and anecdotal side notes. For instance:

You turned on music – The Shins, most likely. We were always listening to The Shins. How many playlists and mixed CDs did I try to make in the months that followed, just trying to create the perfect blend to capture that damn summer? I have sifted through all the evenings to pick out the music that captured us (that romantic notion of “us”). Owen, Broken Social Scene, matt pond, Sufjan (Soof! Come to Wisconsin! I have the tallest man with the narrowest shoulders! This man of suburbia will not steal your heart!), Bob Dylan, Eisley, Psapp (remember I laughed? I said it sounded like a zoo? I’m not laughing anymore. They suck), Josh Ritter, the Weakerthans (those damn underdogs! I loathe you for this!), The National Splits, Tegan and Sara (I’m no longer walking with a ghost, you pompous piece of shit), and for Christ’s sake, who could forget Radiohead? You were obsessed with Pablo Honey that summer. That album sucks as badly as a Radiohead album can suck. Thom Yorke sounds like a high school sophomore on that album. The only halfway decent song on the damn CD is Creep. And maybe Ripcord, but the rest suck – especially the one you loved some much, Thinking About You. That has to be the worst Radiohead song ever. Upgrade your taste to OK Computer and quit it with your elitist bullshit. 

Many of the details were fabricated ones – ones that don’t apply at all to the relationship on which this piece was based, but there was a lot of bitterness I was attempting to work through with this piece. I accomplished this too. I did a full-class workshop on this piece, and it gave me a sense of closure and retribution when it was all said and done. Airing out the dirty details and humiliations was electrifying.  Reading the piece, I can point to the areas where I changed the details in a cheap attempt to fictionalize it (instead of pesto pasta, we made marinada, instead of blue raspberry popsicles there was ice cream bars, etc), and it’s funny, because with a little editing, the piece functions almost perfectly as a personal narrative, which is what I intend to do with it.

Since I’ve matured since that class (it was in 2008. I’d like to think I am no longer as whiny as my 20 year-old self), I didn’t think I would find anything of worth in the folder. I figured all that I wrote then could and should be regarded as dribble. However, it gives me great pride to see what I was capable of creating. I was brutally honest in that piece, and I see now that I am capable of such honesty; I am able to forget about that somebody looking over my shoulder while I write.

I remember feeling caught off-balance when I first had an advisor ask me if I was a writer. I didn’t know how to answer at the time, because I didn’t know the qualifications. I posed that quandary to the readers of my blog at the time, and they responded with answers that basically amounted to “Yes, you moron. You are a writer.” In this moment, I don’t feel I need the outside affirmation. I can say with the utmost certainty: Yes, I am a writer.