Adventure is a hard drug. You get sold on the promise of fun, the lure of escape, but when you’re there in the thick of it, it’s hard and painful and you just want to go home. I used to apply for internships in places far from home and jet off with romantic visions of me sipping coffee in cafes and wandering city streets and reading poetry in the park and meeting people who moved me in a way no one back home could ever do. Cut to me sweating buckets on a bus freaking out because I don’t know if I missed my stop. Cut to me walking miles in urban wasteland, nothing but warehouses and empty fields and big box stores as far as the eye can see. Cut to me blowing off weird guys, awkward coworkers, and annoying roommates to hang out in my room alone. Cut to me running out of money. Cut to me calling my mom, my boyfriend, my friends. Cut to me desperate to come back home.
I love billboards because I love the highway because I love long road trips because I am a sucker for nostalgia. Nostalgia for an Americana that I never lived that maybe never existed is like a short cut to eliciting emotion about my own past, or maybe it’s more like a crispy clean saccharine coating for memories that are more complicated to process. We drove everywhere when I was a kid because we couldn’t afford to fly. There were too many of us and even before then there wasn’t money for plane tickets. So we drove through the mountains up to the pacific northwest to see one set of grandparents and we drove halfway across the country from the midwest to the southwest and back again to see another set of grandparents so many times and I loved every miserable moment of those trips. Robert and I drove too, in our early years, all over the desert, not because we couldn’t afford plane tickets but because we had nowhere to go. We used to pick destinations at random, for no reason. Let’s go to Wilcox! Let’s go to Casa Grande! Let’s go to Bisbee! Let’s go up to Phoenix for the state fair! It was on one of those trips that we saw the greatest billboard of my life, a campy horror-esque advertisement for THE THING. What THE THING was we had no idea, but we had to see it. The billboard told us we had to. And then we saw another billboard and another and another after that, each one announcing with increasing urgency that THE THING was drawing nearer. We followed the billboards, they were on the way to whatever small whatevertown we were headed to that day, but we would have blown right past our destination in search of THE THING if it had come to that. When we finally made it to the home of THE THING, one of those gas station/souvenir store outposts in the desert, we followed the signs to the back of the store and saw that we’d have to pay $2 for the thing. Robert lost all enthusiasm but there was no dampening mine, so I went in, and wandered through a labyrinth that wound well behind the store, marveling at all manner of chintzy artifacts and treasures but also walking quickly because I needed to get to the THE THING and finally I did and it was everything I ever dreamed.
I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.
I’m writing this from the backseat of a cab, heading back home. I’ll probably get motion sick before I finish. I can’t read in car. I can barely tolerate looking at my phone, not even to send a text or scroll through Instagram or get directions. I feel like I’m going to puke in under a minute. It’s remarkable, if I think about it, how much my life has been shaped by this predisposition toward motion sickness. That’s what it is, I found out: a genetic predisposition. I found out from one of those 23andMe DNA tests. Anyway, some my most unpleasant, most humiliating, most unpleasant experiences have involved motion sickness. There was the time I broke my toe in college and couldn’t walk across campus so I tried to take the school shuttle from campus health to my dorm and it should have taken ten minutes max but I didn’t know the route and it was over 100 degrees outside (I went to college in the desert) and I’d been up all night high on opiates and finishing an essay and now I was in excruciating pain and lost and dehydrated and the bus was just making me ill. Another rider took pity on me and offered me water. He must have seen how sick I was. Or maybe I begged him for a drink. The plastic bottle he handed me was clearly used, refilled, with warm water that was tinged with brown, like maybe it had been used for coffee or tea before. I drank it down. I was so grateful. Another time I got so overheated and sick on the CTA I had to get off like six stops early and strip off my winter layers and just stand there underdressed on the platform in the cold until I’d recovered enough to reboard. That’s actually happened a bunch of times. Now when I take a slow train line, I try to remember to bring ginger chews or some hard candy to suck on. Snacks and water. I am like a baby. It’s sort of pathetic. And then there were all the times I drank too much. Puking in other people’s houses, cars. Puking in my own house, my own car. Puking in the gutter. In the end, it was the hangovers that took me out of the game. They were just so epically bad. Spinning on bed. Head in the toilet. Weak stomach for days. I wonder if I even would have ended up in AA if I could hold my booze better, physically, I mean. If I wasn’t such a lightweight. I guess we’ll never know.
Well, I made it home. I feel okay. I’m feeling like a dummy for ordering oysters at the airport for dinner, but I guess I never learn.
Today my alarm went off at 4:50 am and instead of rolling out of bed to run in the sleet I reset the alarm for two hours later and went back to sleep. Exactly ten minutes later D clambered down from her bunk bed threw on the lights in the hall, barged into my room to use the master bath (?), and then instead of going back to bed she plopped down on the floor and started crafting. “D. It’s way too early. Go back to bed. Happy Halloween.” Of course she cried. She was just so excited. This kid loves holidays more than anything, all the holidays, all the birthdays, all the anniversaries. Any excuse to celebrate. She gets that from her dad’s side of the family, and I’m happy to say that lust for the extraordinary parts of life have rubbed off on me too. But not Halloween. Not at 5:00 am anyway. After some tears (hers) and pleading (mine) she went back to bed for two more hours and so did I. The rest of the day was business as usual–work, school–except the sleet turned to fat flakes of snow that fell hard without stopping from 8:00 am to 5 pm. My walk home was enchanted autumn meets winter wonderland, fluffy diamond dust piled high on ruby, peridot, and amber leaves, glistening in huge swaths of fake spiders’ webs, gathering in jack-o’-lantern nooks and witchy crannies. The neighbor’s horrible ghoul collapsed in a cold heap. At home, we ate dinner so early I thought I wouldn’t be hungry, but rotisserie chicken and roasty garlicky asparagus changed my mind. We donned costumes. R in a dog mask, me in a hot dog hat, D in a full body hot dog costume with a dog mask and puppy paws. We met the neighbours out front at 5:00 pm, a whole crew of kids six and under in costumes mostly hidden under coats and parents who are game for mostly anything, and walked around the block, watching our kids clamber up slippery wooden stairs, try to ring doorbells with gloved hands, and beg their way into truly astonishing amounts of candy. The families dropped off one by one, their kids were too little and too cold, until it was just me and D left and it seemed that the snow drove even the local teenagers to turn in early. At some point it hit me that I wasn’t anxious, that I hadn’t felt anxious all day, and that this was something. Big days, social stuff, seeing friends usually winds me up tight. We stuffed hand warmers into our hands and boots and hit a few more houses that had gone on all out in the decoration department. D saw a realistic Pennywise, a realistic warewolf, several realistic zombies, and several severed limbs but never admitted defeat. I forced us back in when there were more houses with lights off than on. Back at home, we helped D with her candy dump and sort, warmed up with hot cider, and read out loud. Later, in bed, D cried, “Why does Halloween have to be over?” and talked about about Thanksgiving, calling it “The Worst.” Honestly, I get why a holiday that involves a 5k, cooked vegetables, and no presents is cold comfort at the end of Halloween, but I have no doubt that by the time Thanksgiving rolls around she’ll be bopping around my bedside at 5:00 am and eventually crying herself to sleep she will be so sad to see another good day go.
When I was seventeen, I made out with a boy named Pat. He was a massive gamer geek who lived in a crusty apartment with a bunch of other massive gamer geeks who, as a group, could not bothered to look up from casting spells or killing trolls in their online fantasy world to even grunt a hello at girls like me who occasionally found ourselves at the apartment, against our better judgment, sitting around on crusty couches bored listless in the blue glow of computer screens and Kevin Smith movies. Pat even looked a little like a troll, short and lumpy, though I reassured myself he looked like a young, soft Gold-era Ryan Adams.
Like I imagined Ryan Adams to be, Pat was also kind of a bristly jerk and I steered clear of him until I found out from a friend that he had complimented my ass. At least I think he complimented it. “Pristine,” is what he called it. Flattered, I relayed the information to my best friend, who is smarter than me, and immediately took the wind out of my chaps.
“So, he thinks your ass is…clean? That’s weird.”
“No, he thinks it’s perfect. Like, the platonic ideal of an ass.”
We consulted the dictionary definition. “Pristine: in its original condition; unspoiled.” We checked out the synonyms: “virgin; pure; unused.”
“He’s saying that nobody else has touched it. That’s what he likes.”
“No way. I was wearing my good jeans.”
“Hm. You might be right. You do have a good ass.”
With that settled, I decided to make out with Pat. My self-esteem was on the ground after being recently dumped by my first boyfriend and pining away in unrequited high school love for another boy for over a year, and the news that somebody was paying attention to a part of my body that I had only ever thought of as a liability made previously-invisible Pat blink on like a Lite Brite. Oh look! A distraction! Not a cure for my heartbreak but a mild salve. Something to do.
So, me and my long legs and good jeans and pristine ass made out with lumpy little Pat and, honestly, it was pretty hot, at least as far as this wildly hormonal and underexperienced teenager was concerned. It was fun. I didn’t like Pat, but I definitely wanted to hook up with him again. I told a friend, the one who had passed on the good word about my ass, hoping she might pass my interest back to him.
When she did and got back to me a few days later, Pat’s response floored me: he said it never happened. He denied the whole thing, first to our friends, and later to my face: that we were alone together, that we kissed, that we rolled around in bed together for over an hour.
I was prepared for rejection or disinterest–that was the long and short of the story of my romantic life up to that point. I was prepared to be a little sheepish about the fact that I was interested in this weird dude. I wasn’t expecting to be humiliated. I definitely hadn’t planned on spending the days and weeks to come defending–and ultimately questioning–my own sanity. Did I misinterpret the originating comment about my body? Did I commit some grievous teenage error by talking about our hook-up? Did he not have as much fun as I did, as I thought he was having? Was he not lucky to have me in his bed, to put his hands all over me? Did I make up the entire goddamn thing?
I walked away from that encounter embarrassed, of course, but also a tiny bit unhinged. It makes sense, though.
Eventually the girl who doesn’t believe in herself is going to stop believing herself.