Good Girl, Pretty Girl

I’ve been a little remiss in updating for a number of reasons. Things have been busy, I’ll say, even if that is only sort of true. I’ll write more soon. In the meantime:

In searching for a file yesterday, I came upon this piece. It was written in the winter of 2013, which was terrible. My writing partner and I had taken a job developing and scripting a reboot of a famous horror franchise, and it was making us both insane. I lost 35 pounds that winter, smoked two packs a day, barely ate, drank myself to sleep every night. On a rare morning off from the project, I wrote this piece, about desperation, from the perspective of my dog. It is strange and disjointed, more a series of sketches than a short story, but I’m more fond of it than I’d have thought.

Talk soon,

nt.

+++

“Good Girl, Pretty Girl”

I.

The dog wakes from a dream. She was running through a dark wood, chasing. Shadows ran alongside her, and she knew that she was safe, that these were the shadows of brethren in the midst of a furious primal hunt.

Dust motes float in the beams of sunlight pouring through the window of the cluttered apartment. She listens through the sounds of the city outside, and she hears the sound of the man breathing in the next room. He is alone in bed, the woman having left for work early. He will be awhile waking up, and so she stretches her joints, aching and stiff from sleep.

The dog winds her way through the furniture and into the kitchen. The woman has filled her bowls. She sniffs at the kibble. It smells only vaguely of game, something that she would chase down in the forest. She takes a bite, and the illusion is shattered.

She goes to the door of the bedroom and peeks in. The man is snoring operatically in the tousled sheets. His legs curved just so and and his arm draped over his face. She sighs and flops down in the doorway. She waits for him to wake. She drifts.

She does not get up when he wakes. She is familiar with his morning routine. He pulls himself from the great cast-iron bed. When he walks, he takes slow, heavy steps that cause the wooden floor to shake beneath him. He steps over her and into the bathroom, and the sound of his urination hitting the porcelain bowl and the salty smell of it fill her senses. He, this beast, he is hers, and she loves him and fears his shifts in mood but when he exits the bathroom, he pauses to run his bare foot over her back before continuing on to the kitchen, where he furthers his ritual by pouring the dark, pungent beans into the grinder and boiling water and opening the refrigerator to inspect its contents.

The coffee done, he sits down on the couch and places the steaming mug beside him. He will not drink more than a sip before he lies back and closes his eyes once again.

The man does not move for a great length of time. She cannot tell how long. She does not know minutes or hours. She tracks the sunlight as it shifts across the room and after it has moved from the rug to the coffee table, he sits up and looks to her. They make eye contact.

It is time to go outside.

II.

The dog wakes to the sound of sirens in the distance, and for a moment, she mistakes them for the call of her wild sisters. Before she can stop herself, she raises her head and returns the forlorn howl. It was not something that she was taught and she does not know why she howls, only that she must howl, and a memory that is not hers passes through her mind. She realizes in a moment that these are not the sounds of the Others. She knows that they are only mechanical. This does not stop her from howling. She howls until they are out of earshot, and she stops and listens. Only the sounds of the city, muffled through the thick walls.

To pass the time, she tries to think the saddest thing that she can think. But the only thing that she can think of is being alone, and she is alone right now, she does not know when or if they will return, and it is dreadfully quiet. She tries to think of something else. She cannot. She sighs heavily.

III.

The woman returns before the man. She drops her bag in the chair and she greets the dog in a high tone, and the dog gets up and shakes off and wags her tail to return the greeting. The woman walks back to the door and retrieves the leash hanging on the hook and the dog runs to her and sits on the kitchen floor and she is so excited that she cannot help but shake. The woman hooks the leash to her collar and opens the door. The dog tries to wait, because the woman will be cross if she bounds out the door before being told to do so. But she wants to go through the door so badly. She can smell the outside. She can smell the rain from before and how it intensifies the scents of the world. She waits. The woman gives her the signal, and she rushes toward the world, feeling the pull of the woman on the other end of her tether but not caring for a moment.

She squats to relieve herself, shivering with pleasure at the feeling. She sniffs the air around her. They walk. There are so many smells. They are a history of the world.

All too soon they are reentering the apartment and she does not want to return but takes consolation in knowing that the rest of her pack will be with her inside the small space, that they will eat and sit and stare at the television and if she lies next to the man, he will scratch her behind her ears and when he stops he will lay his foot upon her side and leave it there and they will both find comfort in the contact.

IV.

The man and woman take turns being the alpha, depending on who has energy after the long day. She knows her place in the chain, she is Omega, sometimes she wishes otherwise and tries half-heartedly to assert dominance, but they are not fooled and they lay hands on her and press her to the ground until she stills herself. It does not matter. It is a passing fancy. They are not an ideal pack, but they are hers and she theirs, they are all together, for now, in the cavern that they call home, and the smell of the dishes in the sink and the dust that surrounds them in the air and the socks on the floor, those that she has hidden beneath the furniture, and their bodies, their simian bodies, it is all there as it has always been. As it will ever be.

She smells where they have been. The Woman smells of coffee and stale sweat and the Man smells of cigarette smoke but beneath these masks she can smell what they feel. The subtle air of sadness, the sharp tang of anxiety or desperation. She comes to them and tastes them, and they smile and accept her tongue for a moment before calming her with hands on her skull, her neck, her back. She knows she only has so much time to taste, that they will rebuke her sharply if she persists, but she tastes for as long as they will let her.

She feels a kinship with them when they are sad. When they cannot get up off of the couch. They are alone but together. She fears the morning. The morning is when they leave her. She never knows for sure if they will return.

V.

When they are all together, they make voices that they know are supposed to be hers. They speak for her. She knows the tone of it and listens intently, her ears perking up. She understands very little of the language, but it does not matter. They are communing with her. That is all that matters.

VI.

When the man lies on the couch in the afternoon, she knows that something is wrong, but can only gauge the severity of the situation when she creeps close and sits beside him, face to face. He does not usually respond well to her face in such close proximity to his. If he snaps at her to go, he is merely tired. If he places his hand gently atop her head and looks into her eyes and whispers to her, something is very wrong. She does not know what it is, except that she feels it too, deeply, without understanding. They are alone, together.

VII.

The dog does not entirely understand pack politics. She knows her place in the order, of course, but cannot understand the subtle back-and-forth between the two people. She senses when things are tense, and also the lack of tension when things are easy. The feelings wash like a great tide over her, swelling and receding. She cannot imagine the future. She has never tried. Life is one endless expanse, interrupted by periods of dark and sleep and an occasional meal and a walk through the vast park.

The dog does not know if she is happy and doesn’t ponder it. There is an emotion in her, deep down, that she does not quite comprehend, that came from before her great great great grandmother was born. Sometimes it swells in her chest so much that she can feel it in her throat, and she tenses, barely controlling herself, half-expecting it to burst forth into the small apartment, tear through the walls, escape into the hazy afternoon sunlight outside. She shakes her entire body as if trying to dry herself. She barks into the empty apartment and listens to the echo. Something stirs just outside, in the hallway.

The dog waits.

Something will happen. It always has before.

On Italics, in Brief

So my cat (read: my wife-to-be’s cat) is famous, and I am now known better for meowing at him than for anything else I’ve done with my life. So all of the hard work has finally paid off! I’m writing a piece on this. In the meantime, here is the video:

If you’re new here, I’ve done other things with my life that are not related to Italics. Here, watch a film that I made with my writing partner a few years ago (Warning: if you’re only here for the cat, you won’t like this at all.):

And here I am, yelling at a child:

At any rate: I’ll write a real humdinger of a thinkpiece about owning a cat or owning a famous cat or yelling at cats soon, and also I will write more about our impending nuptuals after I shake off the hangover of this sudden and strange notoriety.

Stay in school, kids!

Bully.

I am trying to be a good person. For Amy. Also, for me. You know how it goes. It is easy to be a misanthrope. It is easy to raise a gentle middle finger to the world and all those in it. It is easy to sit alone at home and make cat memes and hate the men with the leaf blowers who forever blow outside my window.

I frequently struggle with empathy. when I do, I think about Russ James.

For a ten-year-old, he was a real dick. I mean just a petty, mean-spirited, walking, farting, swearing pile of wet garbage. A cartoon bully. The kind you’d find in one of those Looney Toons knock-offs in the 30s. Alfalfa cowlick. Husky southern accent. He stalked the halls of Pine Ridge Elementary School alone or with a couple faceless goons, threatening swirlies and stealing lunch money and just generally being the worst kind of stereotype about it all. A little redneck shit with a chip on his shoulder.

As you can probably tell, I was no big fan of Russ James. For the most part, my memories of him are a gauzy haze of half-remembered dread. And they pop up infrequently, usually when somebody else is reminiscing about in their own asshole demons. And then suddenly his stupid smug face and the grating, raspy twang of his voice jump to the front of my mind.

So:

It was Christmas, probably 1990. Because that would have put me at eleven. And it seems rational that someone that age would still be excited about Christmas, despite the recent divorce (we didn’t know yet the extent to which divorce was a joy-suck during the holidays.) Also, eleven sounds like an age wherein a kid would still believe in Santa. I mean, it’s at the tail end of those years, to be sure. But it’s there.

I was little and bleary-eyed and riding on the bus early in the morning on the last day of school before Christmas break. The mind conjures up sleep in eyes and condensation on the inside of the bus windows and the squeak of jeans on pleather and the smell of bookbags and erasers. The strange blue-gray light of a December morning. And then, from behind me, from above, Russ James’s voice:

“Hey, Nicholas.”

I remember his buckteeth on full display (no judgment, I still have buckteeth myself), as he smiled down at me with a weird sense of [false] benevolence.

“… Yeah?”

“Are you excited about what Santa’s going to bring you?”

This gave me pause.

I was used to Russ. Russ was never nice. If Russ was being nice, it meant that he was setting a clumsy trap. I’d fallen for them before. And was inherently distrustful.

But I could not for the life of me figure out what he was getting at with that question. Why wouldn’t I be excited about what Santa Claus was going to bring me? Everybody was excited about that. And Jesus, it had been a rough year. It was a relief to have something to look forward to. And so I answered truthfully:

“Yeah.”

His eyes lit up. Like, this was great. Like, he couldn’t fucking believe his luck. This was perfect! He’d gone fishing, and caught a whopper on his first cast. He turned to the rest of the bus, and announced at the top of his lungs:

“Hey, everybody, this baby still believes in Santa Claus!”

He received a wide variety of responses. The older kids all burst into full-throated laughter. The younger kids either looked around, blessedly confused, or sat like I did. Eyes ahead. In stony silence. Brains overheating. Because Russ James had just taken something. Gleefully. Which is what bullies do.

Anyway, there it was. No Santa Claus. And of course, as soon as it sunk in, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course there’s no Santa Claus. What a little idiot I have been!

It’s a real bummer to think about those nasty little turning points. The epiphanies that come wrapped in humiliation. So we won’t. This is not about loss of innocence, after all. Not entirely.

+++

I continued over the coming years to avoid direct contact with Russ. Because every interaction came with a price. Usually that cost being to one’s dignity. Luckily, I was not the epicenter of Russ James’s attentions. No one seemed to be. He didn’t have an Object of Derision like some bullies seem to. He was a freelancer. A man without a country. So he’d just meander through  our weekdays, breaking and scraping and peeing on things at random and just generally making everyone uneasy.

And then one morning in the sixth grade, in the autumn, Russ came to school with a stack of small envelopes. He looked different. His hair was combed. He was wearing a button up shirt. And he looked… nervous. During homeroom, he went from desk to desk, dropping envelopes in front of each student. Muttering quietly some strange mantra as he went.

It’s Saturday. Saturday. It’s Saturday.”

A small blue envelope fell in front of me, and he moved on, muttering. I picked the envelope up and looked to the kid on my left, who seemed afraid to touch the dubious missive Russ had dropped in front of him. I maybe should have been more skeptical, but I was dying to know what was in there.

And so I opened it. It was an invitation to his birthday party.

I almost laughed. For safety’s sake, I held off.

But man, when I got home, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother. She’d understand. I’d told her about the Santa incident. When I did, I’d wept. I’d been betrayed, after all. By my parents, who’d lied to me all my life. By Russ, who’d humiliated me. By my own stupid milk-baby naiveté. I know that my mother had been pissed about it. That she had ached for me. And probably wanted to slap the shit out of Russ James. So I thought she’d get a kick out of the fact that he’d invited me to his birthday party. I mean, the gall.

She read at the invitation. Listened as I laughed about how stupid he must think I was. I mean, seriously, buddy. Shame me once, shame on you. Right? Right, Mom? Isn’t Russ just a big, dumb bully jerk? Isn’t he? Can we burn this invitation on the stove?

She made me go.

I was not happy about it.

But we went and bought Russ a birthday present (I don’t remember what he was into but it was probably duct tape or sticks or something). And on the appointed day, despite my protestations, she marched me to the car and strapped me in. Somewhere, faint a far off, a snare drum rolled. We drove drove to the James House. It was like ours, but in a slightly shittier neighborhood. She pulled up to the house with the lone balloon, and walked me in slow motion to the door. I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand what law I’d broken or who I’d pissed off up the ladder to deserve this fate. But we knocked on the door, and Mrs. James answered. For the purposes of this retelling, she had a cigarette in her mouth. (She didn’t.) My mother passed me off to her. Before she left, I made sure to make one last pleading gesture to her, putting all of my heart and dread and need into my blue eyes and trying to shoot it at her like a little desperate cannon. How could you leave me, the look said. I, your first born, who has loved you so well?

She must not have noticed.

“Have fun,” she said, and was gone.

I did not have fun. It was an uncomfortable afternoon. Russ was sullen. He’d invited our entire class and most of the kids in his neighborhood to this party. All he got was me and two of the younger neighbor boys, who spent most of their time stuttering and blinking too much. We ate pizza and cake and watched a VHS tape, and Russ opened the few gifts he’d received as his mother looked on with an inscrutable expression. Sadness? Disapproval? Boredom? What was that? My mother never made that face. She was not particularly engaged. As if it had taken everything in her to do this much for her kid.

We went outside and walked around the neighborhood. Russ showed us a fort he’d made in the woods out of some old plywood and a few sticks. We listlessly threw things at squirrels. I’m pretty sure we talked about something, but I can’t for the life of me imagine what that would be.

My mother picked me up around dark. She asked whether I’d had fun. I’d shrugged. She asked if all of my friends were there. They were not, I’d said. She nodded. We drove on in silence. She was not off the hook for throwing me into that situation. I was going to be so insufferable for the rest of the weekend. I was busy thinking about all of the ways that I would be a prick to her when she broke the silence.

“Do you think Russ is a happy person? Do you think he has a happy home life?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

At the next light, she turned and studied me for a moment.

“I’m proud of you,” she said quietly, turning back to the road.

For the rest of the weekend, I tried very hard to be a good son.

+++

I’m not sure why my mother chose Russ as a conduit to teach me a lesson about empathy. Maybe because he was such a dick? If you can see the humanity in the worst of us, maybe it’s that much easier to see it in everyone else? Whatever her reasoning, it stuck.

It’s easy to be decent to someone who is nice. Or who is like you. It’s harder to extend that outward to others. To assholes. To people who lie outside of your comfort zone. I struggle with it, constantly. It’s not easy. Anyway, thanks, Mom.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Russ and I did not become friends. The next year, we went on to different middle schools, and I moved on to bigger, better, crueler bullies. That’s the way it goes.

But by way of an epilogue, I’ll give you this: Weeks later, during recess, I was playing kickball [against my will] and totally botched a play when I neglected to catch an easy fly ball, causing my team to give up two runs. The captain started mocking me loudly for my complete lack of athletic prowess.

Russ, on the other team, piped up loudly:

“At least he doesn’t piss the bed, Joey!”

Joey’s face turned beet red and he ran inside, his teammates watching helplessly as he went. I looked to Russ. Maybe to thank him? To acknowledge at least the small favor he’d done me? But he’d already moved on to mercilessly flicking the ear of the small boy next to him.

My hero.

Recipe for Stew/Melancholy

It is autumn, and we are purging and nesting and steeling ourselves for the onslaught of the holidays and the grinding tedium of the coming winter. And in the midst of it all, we continue apace slogging through wedding stuffs. It is a time to make oneself very busy, and to ignore the gathering shadows.

An overwhelming season, all in all. Besides the planning and nesting, there is also going to work and keeping ourselves afloat and all of the other workaday nonsense that makes up the vast majority of human existence. We all deal with it, and we all have our own ways of working out our anxieties in the little bits of off time that we’re granted. Sometimes, we work out. Sometimes, we sit and read in the big comfortable chair by the window. Sometimes, we drink. And on occasion, we take those little bits of flexible time and press them together and if we are lucky, those spare bits of time form a full day of free time. We concocted one of these free days over last weekend, and went up into the mountains. At a particularly crowded orchard, we bought apples and sweet potatoes. Quite a bit of both. A comical amount, some might say. And, unwilling to admit that maybe I made a mistake in buying so many apples and sweet potatoes, I have instead decided to focus my energies on how to best go about using up this abundance.

I have eaten apples with bleu cheese and cut up with other fruit. I have baked a couple of sweet potatoes. I have made sweet potato fries. I made a large apple-sweet potato bake, and will be eating it for some time. Probably on my own.

I will also be giving away applesauce at some point.

And then, stretching perhaps, I came up with this recipe for beef stew, using apples and sweet potatoes. It’s very good, and it kept me busy for a number of hours in the kitchen when I otherwise could have been working or stressing out about all of the things in my life that make me uncomfortable. I share this recipe now with you, dear reader.

“[AUTUMNAL SOUNDING] BEEF STEW”

or

“I’M FINE (STEW)”

2 pounds cubed beef stew meat

4 carrots, cut into one inch pieces

3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 onions, chopped

1 bulb garlic, minced

1 Granny Smith apple, chopped

4 cups beef stock

1/2 cup red wine plus remainder of bottle to stabilize self after long day

1 tsp Turmeric

1/2 tsp Ginger

1 sprig rosemary

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp smoked paprika

Black Pepper to taste

1/2 tsp white Pepper

2 tsp corn starch

Cooking oil

You should probably start with a pot. I’ve got a Creuset, which is a very nice dutch oven that was gifted to me for Christmas one year (I could never have afforded it on my own.) Any will do, though. Seriously. Heat up a little bit of oil in the bottom of the pot. Throw the beef in to brown. Season it with salt and pepper. This will keep you busy for a few minutes. Open the bottle of wine at some point while the meat is cooking. Pour a little in a glass, and call Amy into the kitchen if she’s within earshot.  If she shows up, offer her some. If she doesn’t, you’ll just have to do this alone. Sprinkle the flour over the meat once its browned.

At this point, you’ll want to add in the onions and garlic. Some people are prudes about garlic. They’ll say “a whole bulb? That seems like overkill.” And you’ll say, under your breath, or maybe just inside of your own head, “fuck you.” And you’ll be in the right. It’s a whole bulb. It will make your house smell. It will ward off the emotional vampires. The ones with opinions about your cooking. This is also probably the time you’ll want to toss in the turmeric and cinnamon and paprika and ginger and rosemary. So you can toast the spices. For some reason. Sip some wine. This shouldn’t be stressful.

After the Onions become transparent, add the cooking stock and the wine. Put a lid on the mess for a while. Turn it down to low to simmer. For an hour? Who knows. Now’s a good time to chop sweet potatoes and carrots and apples. Peel all of those things first, should you find it necessary. If the wine is working properly, it shouldn’t matter. Just dump all of the stuff in a bowl to the side until it’s time to add it.

Maybe now’s the time to go check on Amy? If you’ve been smart, you’ve saved her some wine. If you’ve been wicked smart, you bought a second bottle to give yourself a little wiggle room. She’s probably in the bedroom working on something, or researching caterers or places to rent silverware. She’ll ask your opinion, perhaps. At this point, you should probably have a few opinions. You owe her at least that. She went off to Charleston without you last week to introduce her mother to yours. Without you. You stayed home and worked and went to rehearsal and pretty much just did the same not-terribly-scary things you would normally do while she went to another city without any backup and introduced your mother to her mother which is terrifying. Not that either mother is a monster, mind you. They are both lovely women who have your best interests in mind and at heart. But people have written novels, plays, films about families intermingling for the first time. Think Romeo and Juliet. It’s inherently dramatic. And they were talking wedding stuff, too. And you missed it. So you should probably pipe the fuck up when she asks if you have an opinion. That is literally the very least you can do, asshole.

You honestly worry that you are not enough for her. Or worse, that you’re too much. Your career, which you spent so much of your adult life obsessing over, seems to be in free fall, and you’re just this big twisted knot all of the time, all worry and want and inferiority complex. And maybe you’ve always been this way? Why is she with you, anyway?

Stop thinking! She’s in the other room planning your wedding so you can’t be totally screwing this up.

Maybe don’t bother her just yet. You will not be useful. Sit on the floor in the kitchen with your wine. Watch the autumn sunbeams catch the dust motes in the kitchen on fire. Don’t watch for too long. You’ll get melancholy, and then it’s all downhill. Besides, an hour has passed, surely, so it’s time to put the other chopped vegetables into the stew.

Cover again. Let simmer. Let simmer for a long time. An hour, or a lifetime. Did you notice that the sunlight slants differently than it did a month ago? And that the light is paler? And that it’s getting dark so much earlier. It is time to dust off all of the ol’ coping mechanisms. Winter’s coming. You should start exercising again. And pick out a few books. Get back into a steadier writing routine. Yeah, you’re busy, but you can still find time. Also, this. Cooking. Cooking for someone. She’s in the other room! Planning the rest of your life! That’s nice! Add that to the list of coping mechanisms: take part in the planning of your own future with the person who loves you.

When vegetables are tender, remove from heat. Ladle into bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring bowl to her in the other room with whatever wine is left over.

Serves 6-8, or 2 for a few days.

Translate/List

Rifling through yet another box of old books, I became suddenly and violently wistful when I came upon my 18-year-old copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a serious book of serious poetry, with the original German published alongside English translations by poet Stephen Mitchell. In case you want to compare the two. The book is yellowed and dogeared and coffee-dappled. Quite literally bent out of shape by time and sloppy packing. I’d honestly thought that I’d lost it in a previous move.

But there it was, shoved in the middle of a couple of dozen other books I could have sworn I’d sold or donated or given away at some distant point in the past. I picked it up, and flipped to my favorite poem, and the wist became almost overwhelming, like someone tickling you until it leaves marks.

I flipped around further, and revealed two unexpected artifacts:

1) The invitation to the rehearsal dinner of a close friend’s wedding from 2007, and

2) A single piece of loose leaf notebook paper, neatly folded twice over. On one side, a hand-scribbled German-to-English translation of the poem “The Dwarf’s Song,” on the other side “Going Blind.”

Not my handwriting. I’ve never had anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge of the language, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Besides, if I’d wanted an English translation, I’d have simply read those already provided.  It belonged to my friend Iva, who was German by birth and also had little patience for poets, or their loose translations of the German Masters. She just couldn’t abide by poetic license when linguistic accuracy was on the line. And so, one autumn evening in 1999, we sat on the steps of the Chapel on North Campus and I patiently waited while she worked out a more literal (and less lyrical) translation of Rilke’s words. It took a good half hour, and I sat and scribbled some probably brilliant/easily forgettable notes in my journal, which I was never without. When she was done, she handed me the sweet (if fussy) gift, and I tucked it into the book, where it has lived for nearly twenty years.

This type of thing was typical of Iva. She was bull-headed, and loud, and abrasive, and argumentative, and we were fast and loyal friends. She ended up dating my best friend McClain for a couple of years (oddly enough, the invitation found in the book was to his rehearsal dinner).

I think I assumed at the age of 19 that my friendships were set in concrete, because the people I had befriended were decent and kind and funny, and I couldn’t imagine not being friends with them. We wrote long letters to each other and wandered around town in the autumn, shuffling through leaves on the sidewalks until late at night. We drank tequila and sang on the floor of our dorm rooms, and held each other’s hair back when we puked. And, oh, how we puked, and oh, what magnificent hair we had.

I haven’t spoken to Iva in well over a decade. I do not know where she is currently, or much of what’s become of her. Nothing calamitous happened between us. It just ended and she skipped town and that was that. The only evidence of our friendship is a couple of mixed tapes and a stack of old photos and this single loose leaf sheet of earnestly translated German poetry.

+++

There are a number things that we find stressful as we plan our way forward. There are emails and texts to venues and caterers and our Mothers. There are dresses to try on and cakes to consider. There are parties upon parties and registries and dances to plan and details, God, details, I’m not a detail person, I am having a minor panic attack even typing this paragraph oh God.

Did you know that when you get married, you’re expected to invite people to it? Yes, so did I! But I never really gave it too much thought, because- until recently- it was always something of an academic issue. It was a thing to worry about at some far distant point in the future that could only be seen clearly through the telescopic lense of a hopeful mother’s imagination.

But given my recently altered situation, it has become very suddenly a present matter. And so I am forced to think long and hard about the people I know and love.

For many years, I thought it a blessing to have such a large and close family and many friends whom I knew intimately and loved. It meant that you never had to struggle alone, it meant that you could depend on people and could be depended upon in return. It meant you had drinking buddies and shoulders to cry on and hands to hold and backs to pat and babies to hold and meals to share and oh my God what a wonderful world! A world filled with love! I may be a salty son of a bitch, but I’m not a monster. I love people. Some of them I love very much.

So far in this life, I have considered myself very lucky.

But in order to properly plan a wedding, you have to know how many people are coming before you make any other decisions. And for that, you have to start making lists. And almost immediately, shit gets hairy. You have to make unsavory distinctions between people that you like.

Because we love our families, and they in return love us, we have to invite them. No question. There is no one on my family list that I couldn’t invite to my wedding. I would hate myself. And would likely find myself on the business end of some very effective blackmail (both the literal and emotional varieties.)

Between our two families, the total creeps up to 100 people. That number alone was somewhat daunting. We sat in bed, clutching our morning coffee, staring at the spreadsheet. (There are spreadsheets! Nothing says “love” or “celebrate” like Microsoft Excel!) We decided, as an exercise, to just add on everyone we wanted to have at our wedding. And of course, almost immediately, the size of the list became absurd.

And so we had to pare it down.

But how? How in the living shit do you do that? (Spoiler alert: as of this entry, we have not completed this task. So if you’re looking for definitive answers on how to do this yourself, go check out the Knot or some shit.)

So. If you know me, I’ve categorized you. Beyond just “close friend” or “casual acquaintance.”

Among categories:

-“Old Friends Who I still interact with on Facebook”

-“Old Friends Who ask me for favors even after that really unsettling political argument in 2004”

-“Old Friends who I still speak to because they married better Old Friends”

-“People whom I feel professional but little personal obligation to”

-“Formal Acquaintances”

-“People who see I regularly but have no deep emotional attachment to”

-“People with whom I will have a series of awkward encounters with if I do not invite them”

-“Friends of Friends who I think maybe are also my Friends now”

-“Friends of Friends who think I am a Friend”

-“People I wished liked me as much as they liked my fiancee”

There are more. Many more. And if you know me personally, you have to know: I have been thinking about you. A lot. Obsessively, in fact. Sometimes in a passing daydream while I sit in afternoon traffic. Sometimes, early in the morning. Or watching Downton Abbey (halfway through season four, currently.) When I think of you, I break into a sweat. My heart races. I fidget, and pace, and scream into pillows over the thought of you. I picture you in my head. Hear your voice in my dreams. I stare at your name on a spreadsheet. Judging the weight of our friendship. Considering how to categorize you. Wondering how you feel about me. And also, maybe, wondering how the hell I am going to avoid you for the next 13 months.

More later, one supposes.

Mom & Mom Mom

I am an emotional eater. Not in that I eat when I’m emotional. It’s that the act of eating itself tends to trigger strong emotion in me. Sometimes, when I eat, I’ll get a little misty. On rare occasion, I’ll outright weep. It took a number of years to figure out the pattern in this neat, socially awkward party trick: at first, I thought it strictly had to do with being hungry, but then I’d find myself in the middle of dessert after a large meal- past the point of full- with a tightening in my chest and a hot face, and so I scratched that from the list. I thought then that perhaps it had to do solely with the quality of food. Like, maybe it’s the level of the chef’s skill or the quality of the ingredients, but then one night I started weeping over a fried egg sandwich.  At store-bought white bread and an industrial-farm egg and Duke’s mayonnaise and salt and pepper. And it wasn’t just that delicate sort of lash-in-your-eye crying, either. It was ugly crying. Bawling. I was alone in my apartment at two a.m., [mostly] sober, standing over the sink in my underwear, eating a fried egg sandwich and practically choking on sobs between bites.

It dawned on me after washing the salt and the grease off of my face what the actual trigger could be, and extensive trial and error proved me right: It was a potent mixture of volatile but suppressed emotions and well-timed comfort food. A muffaletta after a hard day at work, for instance, or garlic mashed potatoes on a rainy Sunday afternoon in autumn. A waffle with syrup when I missed my grandmothers. Boiled peanuts in traffic. Just beneath my calm exterior, there was a roiling shitstorm, tightly bottled up, just waiting to be set loose by a danish, or something.

I’ll save you the trouble of psychoanalyzing me (which would be nasty and dull for all involved) and jump to my conclusions.

The vast bulk of my earliest memories take place in North Miami Beach. We had a small house on a quiet side street with a half-dozen mango trees in the back yard. They were very productive, these trees, and I am told that on a weekly basis my parents had to clear the ground of countless mangoes, which quickly fermented in the powerful South Florida Sun, stinking up the place with their sickly-sweet rot. You do not forget that smell. (Despite it, I am for real as I type this eating a cut-up mango with cayenne pepper, lime, and salt.)

You also do not forget the smell of my great-grandmother Rose Tecosky’s kitchen. We called her Mom Mom. She called me “Richard,” my father’s name. I favored him with my white-blond hair and blue eyes. Mom Mom was an endlessly sweet woman. Very slight of frame. You look at a picture of her and you’d swear she’d blow away at the faintest breeze. And, like any Jewish grandmother, she thought you looked too skinny. That you could use something to eat. Don’t argue, just eat, for the love of God, you’re breaking my heart.

Her cupboard always seemed bare. When she fed you, it seemed as though the food materialized out of thin air. And then there was chicken soup or pot roast or snickerdoodles or these incredibly delicate poppyseed cookies she used to make, barely brown around the edges. There was an endless supply of Andes mints on the coffee table. If all else failed and the adults had their heads turned, there was that small statue of the Bagel Peddler with his payess and long skewer of lacquered Cheerios masquerading as bagels. Technically they were “inedible,” and I was not allowed to put them in my mouth. But I was very young, and life finds a way, no?

Mom Mom died when I was ten or twelve. She was the first person who I ever loved who did that. But while she lived she shined very brightly, and she loved very fiercely, and those qualities have a way of sticking with those left behind long after a soul departs. I can still very clearly recall her voice. I have a couple of her recipes, too, that I squirrel away for when things get desperate.

Mom Mom loved you, so she fed you.

It seems easy enough, I guess, to equate food with love, pure and simple. But also, it’s kind of bullshit. Because there’s no such thing as simplicity. Especially not when it comes to love. Yes, of course, my love for my great-grandmother was pure and honest as I’m sure was hers for me. But I was also three or four in these earliest memories so I didn’t really do nuance at the time. The very young are very lucky in that way. Complexity comes with age and experience.

Anyway.

Adolescence sucked. It sucks for everyone. Being an adolescent is fucking horrid. And you yourself are horrid. All elbows and knees and hormones and oily bits and funk and dirty socks used for nefarious Deeds Which Must Not Be Named. (Frequent and sometimes violent masturbation, is what I’m getting at.)

It was in my adolescence that the parents split (which, for all intents and purposes, was the very best thing they could do for themselves and their family). It was also when we were suddenly very poor. Dad worked a series of ill-paying jobs during those years. Mom owned a small and struggling business (a travel agency, remember those? Probably not, they started dying out in the ’90s, when this part of the story takes place! ) She worked 60 or 70 hours a week to keep it afloat. And so we didn’t see a lot of either parent during the three or four years immediately following the divorce, though it wasn’t for lack of want on the part of any involved party. At first, my siblings and I were too young to be left alone after school. At first we stayed with neighbors. But eventually, I turned (technically) old enough to watch my younger siblings until Mom got home from work, usually well after dinnertime.

In my memory, it always seemed to have been winter during those years. It is not by coincidence that it was during that time period that I felt recognized the little hard kernel of hopelessness in my core that would eventually blossom into a lifelong relationship with depression. But at the time, we were all dealing with our own shit. Mom most of all with her frequently struggling business and insurmountable pile of bills, my siblings and I with each other, and loneliness, and how quietly the light died in the living room every evening.

In her absence, Mom tried to keep the pantry stocked with affordable, semi-nutritious, easily accessible food for my siblings and I. Canned veggies and Rice-a-Roni and ramen and the like. But she was anxious about us eating well, and so one night, she pulled me aside, and informed me that I was going to learn how to cook something. At the age of 13, it seemed like a massive pain in the ass to have to take time out of my busy schedule to learn how to do something as pedestrian as cooking, but my mother persisted, and so I was taught how to make Tuna Noodle Casserole. Which I made at least once a week for the next four or five years, I think.

And it is that act- the act of my mother teaching me how to fend for myself and my siblings in some small way- that lies at the center of my strange emotional reaction to comfort foods. Because it wasn’t just “I love you so I feed you.” It was something much more complicated than that. My mother was making herself sick to keep us afloat. She came home late and exhausted and barely slept for the anxiety. She couldn’t be home for us because she was so busy trying to make sure a home existed for us. And so she taught me how to cook something nourishing. So at least we would remain fed. And so I could have one little thing that I could do so that I didn’t feel so useless. I got to help. I got to be a working part of the slapdash system that kept my family alive.

To this day, the act of cooking is one of the few things that relaxes me. Makes me feel useful. Allows me to show affection. I feed you because I love you, but also because I may not know how else to tell you that.

So yes, in a very real sense, food equals love. In that nuanced, messy way that love has about it. In that way that Cheerios in whole milk is actually the last time I saw Mom Mom, in her housecoat at the assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, touching my face, calling me one last time by my father’s name. Or that Salami wrapped around a piece of cheddar is the darkening kitchen in the house where I grew up, my little sister sitting at the table, her feet barely touching the ground.

And then sometimes, of course, a casserole is just a casserole.

In Which We Begin a Thing

It is five o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep.

I usually can’t. I wake up. I am prone to panic attacks. I have been since I was a teenager. They’ve happened regularly for twenty years. Like clockwork. It’s comforting to be able to depend on something.

And I am very dependable in that way. I have been consistently anxious since I was very young. I am easily discouraged and frequently suffer from bouts of deep depression. I drink to excess, often and with verve. I am bad with money, when I have it. These things follow me around like a fluffy little rain cloud, and hover inches over my head in the middle of the night. They are a part of me. They will not be shaken. Managed, maybe. But never shaken.

Listen, I have good qualities, too, but it’s five o’clock in the morning, and there’s only so much my fevered brain can focus on. Besides, I’m getting at something, the long way around: My favorite character flaw. Which is different from the anxiety and depression and nascent addiction, because I chose this flaw. I carefully curated it throughout my life, and frequently celebrated it, dressing it up in the guise of a virtue.

It is this: I am a commitmentphobe. I have a very healthy dislike of commitment. You could say fear. If you like. I wouldn’t. But you could.

It extends into every facet of my life. For instance: In school, I never chose a major. I tell people that I studied theater and creative writing, and I’m not lying. I did. Just not in any official capacity. I went three-and-a-half years without declaring. What if I found something I liked better? (It should be noted here that I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t, but why risk it?)

Instead of going to class, I wrote. I sat down in the basement of Blue Sky Coffee every night well past midnight, chain smoking with the other Sullen Boys Who Wrote. We wrote in journals and legal pads in those days, and in the margins of dogeared copies of The Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. We drank black coffee and wore stupid sweaters and smoked entire packs of cigarettes in a single sitting and then asked the Sullen Boy who was writing next to us if he’d watch our stuff and he’d shrug noncommittally and we’d go into the cool autumn air and buy another pack, and then we’d smoke that too. We were young and Sullen and never finished anything, but oh the sorta-poems and almost-drafts we wrote! And how we felt it in our hearts and our guts and our lungs.

At any rate, three-and-a-half years of this, and I dropped out of school. Or was disinvited from returning for what should have been my last semester. I forget which (not really). It isn’t important from this vantage point anyway.

I left school and I got a job. It was a pretty neat job for a drop out. It was for a company that owned and managed theme parks all across our great nation. At first, it did not feel corporate at all. At first, I just got to dress up like an old timey lawman and sing bluegrass songs to tourists. After a few months, they asked if I wanted to stay on and write children’s plays. And so I was a Professional Writer! It was very good until it started to feel terrible, and then it was terrible for a very, very long time. Ten years! I had a number of opportunities for advancement during that time, and declined each one. Because this was a job that I was doing while I “pursued” my career. Which eventually worked out! Sort of.

See, I told people that I was a Serious Writer. It turns out that if you do that long enough, and are regularly seen carrying a notebook and maybe a copy of The Collected Works of Rainer Maria Rilke, people will ask you to maybe write stuff for them. And (here’s the tricky part) if you occasionally actually write, like, just long enough to hit a deadline once or twice, they fucking believe you! THEY FUCKING BELIEVE YOU. So eventually I was asked by someone who commits to this sort of thing if I’d write screenplays with him, and I quit my job, and we (eventually) wrote a movie, and it did okay, and blah blah blah etc. Now I have a CV.

I’m veering off point. Point is: I have never been fully committed. My writing partner’s off making movies right now, and I’m sitting on my couch at five o’clock in the morning writing a blog post in boxers and a t-shirt that I cut into a muscle shirt as a joke but secretly like to wear because it makes me look like the kind of dude who wears muscle shirts. Because he is fully committed to making movies whereas I didn’t want so much to be nailed down to it. Because that makes sense, yeah?

Here’s the thing about commitmentphobia: it looks an awful lot like freedom for a long time. Not committing to school allowed me all the time in the world to write. Not committing to my job did the same. It didn’t make me productive, or happy, it just allowed me to believe in a future where I was capable of attaining happiness and productivity because I hadn’t been chained to a shit career.

I was the same way in love. A series of relationships that were filled with passion and excitement and that eventually ended in terrible disappointment. Because I had a foot out the door. Always. It was miserable. And yet, I was willing to continue with this lifestyle ad nauseum. Because it meant I never had to be responsible- truly responsible- for another person’s happiness. And because there might always be something else.

And then, of course, I met Amy.

Which is why we are here, really.

Amy was smart, and confident, and funny. And she knew what she wanted, and made plans to get those things. She was resourceful. If she found something lacking, she’d fix it. She was tough, but it was tempered with kindness. I mean, she was basically all of the things that I wished I was.

Also she was beautiful.

Also she liked me.

Also she had very little patience for commitmentphobia, and told me so. And yet I found myself sticking around. And then moving into her apartment, which was kinky and cluttered but felt like home. And each day that we spent together I felt a sort of unwinding of a singular tension. The steadfast commitment to not committing. So close to her heat, it sort of melted off. To mix metaphors.

And then, after a couple of years of this, one night we were walking around Charleston (very much more on Charleston later) and we got to the Harbor, where the moon fell across the water and the summer wind was warm and everything felt perfect. She pulled out a letter to read to me. It was beautifully written, and though at first I thought it was the opening salvo to an intervention, as it continued it became very clear that she was asking me to marry her.

And though my brain was a raging maelstrom, my mouth (which despite myself I have learned to trust) said yes, and when it did, I became very calm. Because yes. Of course, yes. Yes, this person whom I admire and wish to be more like. This person who knows how to throw a left hook. This person who is skilled and decent and full of life. How could I not commit to more of her?

At any rate. I’m shaking at least this one character flaw dressed up like a virtue. The rest I’ll manage to the best of my ability. At the very least, when I wake in a panic at five o’clock in the morning, I have her beside me, gently snoring.

Here, I am going to talk to you quite a bit about weddings, but also about existential dread and depression, but also about love and how good it is to be in love. Also how scary. But mostly how good. Because it is very, very good.