Everyone knows Shanna McNair is one of the great citizens of NYC writing circles, an indefatigable leader of workshops and a thinker about how to publish, where to publish, who’s good in publishing (and who’s not), a thinker about how to conceive of the writing workshop, about how to make it do something useful, a leader of the community, a generous and selfless person. I think there is nothing more important, really, than being a leader in our community, and so when I think about people I admire in writing circles, Shanna McNair is at the top of the list. But like many people who are really good at the community piece of being in the literary world, the danger with a Shanna McNair is that we forget she’s a really great writer too.
And “Funhouse,” as the title would suggest, is the proof of that, that she’s a really great writer, too, as evidenced in this truly moving and refractory account of love and self-destruction, a story that bends back on itself about a half dozen times before the pages are through, forcing us to revisit our presumptions about the main character, Mary, over and over again, as she appears to get herself, or to have gotten herself, into worse and worse scrapes. I have to admit, I loath the Gary Wright song that “Funhouse” uses as its epigraph, but it’s a sign of the great wisdom that McNair brings to bear on this vulnerable, broken, longing protagonist who is her first-person narrator, that you don’t know at the end whether the character knows how murky and woebegone is her conception of love, and, further, whether we should think of this story as confessional, or the furthest thing from confessional that we might find in a contemporary realistic short fiction, a post-modern story of love, an anatomizing of poor choices, refraction of a story of love, a story that may have some actual appropriated non-story material in it, or, maybe not, maybe all those tape recorded voices are invented, a story of recursions and regrets and repetitions! A story with a really bad song as its epigraph on purpose!
The model for this elevated, poignant, lacerating, romanticist vision of human longing is the Denis Johnson of the early period, the guy who wrote Angels, and perhaps, via Denis Johnson, the Isaac Babel of Red Cavalry, where the very worst human tendencies are somehow the long slow way, the very costly way to God. You feel that in “Funhouse,” that all of the good times that were not good at all are such that a protagonist can manage one split second of saying “I’m sorry,” and really meaning it, and thus making good, at last, however briefly, redeemed at the last moment when redemption counts. I always sympathize with a character like this, with my whole heart, and evidently McNair does, too, because she couldn’t tell this much truth without sympathizing, which is probably why she’s such a good citizen, too. She has the really, really big heart.
Now’s your chance, therefore, to read the work of the really great writer, Shanna McNair, and if you want I can tell you about some other stuff she does that’s really valuable too.
My heart is on fire/ My soul’s like a wheel that’s turnin’/My love is alive, my love is alive, yeah, yeah, yeah. —Gary Wright, “Love Is Alive”
There is no limit to the kindness two people can show one another when love is alive. My love was burning and burning but my lover had left me. There I was, shooting fire out of my fingertips. My hot hot soul was a madness of overlaps. My deep tunneling eyes, agape with loss. Me, a smoldering afterthought, awash with ash. No. I would rise, goddamn it. I would not become one of those perfect fossils that lava burns and leaves for dead. Rise up and keep burning. Lovers have only one heart, one heart with no spares; must save it for loving somebody who cares.
And I had to move back home. I had to drive all those miles home, from Seattle to Maine. Alone. Hello, heart. Hello, travel. Hello, addiction. I created a little project to do, on the road. I called it “The Lovers Project.” The Lovers Project would be a thing I would publish, I told myself. Was I a writer? I imagined I was. I’d been a reporter before for a paper back home. Reporters could be objective. Reporters were like anthropologists, studying culture from the outside. I’d report on the whats and whys of love. Me, just a nodding interviewer, not a lover at all. I could yes and no and commiserate. Forget all my lava and fire and burning. Love was what people wanted to talk about and I would simply listen. I bought an Olympus mp3 voice recorder. My plan: talk to twenty strangers as I drove from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was a June afternoon in 2002 when I twisted the key in the ignition and fired it up. I was 31. I had eighteen hundred dollars. I’d ask each of my interview subjects to tell me about their greatest love story. “The One,” I’d say. Was I collecting fossils? No. I was collecting fire.
When I closed my eyes and asked my heart to tell the truth about my own greatest love story, Leo was The One. After decades of friendship, we became lovers. We moved from Belfast, Maine to Seattle. He had a one-year contract there as a project architect. It would be like a kind of romantic vacation for us. Who knows, we might even stay in Seattle. Our apartment overlooked Puget Sound. I was a barista down the street at Pike Place café. What gorgeous first days there. Leo was the best friend I’d ever had. He loved to play and was up for jokes and food and drinks and adventures. He was voluble and sensitive and held my hand when we went on walks and cooked me things like garlic scape pesto with cavatelli. His marvelous laugh expanded with such exultation that it felt like imagination with a capital “I” had come to roost. I felt a great trembling need boiling in my soul and it was Leo and just the sight of him set me buzzing and glowing. His smart dark eyes flashed and seared and left brilliant light-marks behind my own eyelids, as if I’d been staring at the sun; and I traced those bright maps of possibility. I longed for him so absolutely that the dam of my sanity broke and gushed and kept gushing. But nothing could put out the fire inside. It burned deep, deep, deep. And then the fighting started. The contests of wills. And finally, Leo told me he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Said we were over. He didn’t love me. He didn’t want to feel such complicated emotions. He said my real love was drugs, anyway. And I was too much. Too stormy. He said that. Stormy. Seattle, where the rainy weather read like some pathetic fallacy—I was crying and the sky was crying. Can’t you see the tears run down the road. I begged him not to leave me. Leo was resolute. His job contract was complete. He got a U-Haul and went back to Belfast.
It was time for me to return home, too. Escape the rain. I held a sidewalk sale out of our apartment and got rid of the big stuff. I packed the rest into the car, in a fit of triumph, executing a miracle of spatial relationships, with the sightlines clear of boxes and bags. And then I went downtown and scored. Pain pills this time. I’d gotten off the heroin some years back. Being a junky is a losing game.
There I was, driving my car back home to Maine, popping them all the way. My manifesto: anything goes. Dull the agony of defeat. You could say I was following him. I was definitely following him. There were friends to visit on the way back home, too. Friends in SF, LA, Omaha, Columbus and New Holland. AAA mailed me a hard-copy map, built around those stops. A folded booklet with highlighted routes. I went south through Washington and on through Oregon toward California, tall trees lofting high. I took my interviews along the way.
I paid cursory attention to the profundity of the landscape rolling by. I was off-grid. I had a flip phone with limited minutes. I was the picture of wild, at least to myself. I wore thrift store dresses or jeans with my cowboy boots. It was me and the map and my pain and cigarettes and CDs and the radio’s endless love songs and the people I met and their love stories. And love. Love. Love without swipe-rights or internet porn. In 2002, selfie millennials weren’t dolling up like Disney princes and princesses. Love was love was love and risk was risk was risk and my car was my universe.
The car: a second-hand gray Toyota sedan, a ghost of a car, an Everyman car. The only tell about who I might be, inside the vehicle—was the “HOWL” bumper sticker on the rear. I’d attempted to remove it and now it read “HOW”. HOW played in me like a poem. A loss, a longing; a question with no answer as I drove.
It was an impossible wish, this love I’d yearned for, and when my love for Leo finally rose into being, it presented as a hunger, awesome and infinite. The shift in me and the power of my need for him was terrifying. My love was alive. If he was gone forever, I was gone forever. I’d been living for years in the white light of that final crossing-over, anyway. Drugs imbue a person with death. To hell with me. I had fucked so much up, why not let it all go for good. I had a price to pay for all the bad I’d brought into the lives of friends and family. I couldn’t stand it. I kept on with the drugs. The drugs roared and I let myself be wild. World, here is my take on loathing and barbarism. Drive that car until the wheels fly off. It’s a limbo-la of live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse. So-what, to the tits. Or whatever horsemonkey I was telling myself back then.
My desperation was toxic. Static energy crackled in my ears—loud, arena-static loud, as though my soul were translating the torture of the ages, as though my soul itself was a Colosseum entertainment. Leo. Lakes of lava reverberating with cannonading salvos. Leo. And now so much burning, burning. I placed a tall, lighted jar candle in the cupholder of the car console, a “Mano Ponderosa” prayer candle. The flame was for Leo. For our love. For my hope.
Oh, Leo. Why did he give me the gift back. The gift was an oversized green vintage Collier’s World Atlas and Gazetteer, with a graphic of a golden spinning globe imprinted on its cover. But it was more than that. The gift occupied the passenger’s seat. I started talking to the gift somewhere in California, before I hit San Francisco. The gift held my soul. My soul and my regrets. The gift was alive.
The gift was a flip-book I made using photo booth pictures. I found a curio shop that had a booth in the back. The cashier let me take hundreds pictures of myself with props—a boa, sunglasses, different outfits, pinwheels, wigs, bubbles. Stop-motion is perfect for a flip-book. I’d put in the money and four photos would come out. I held up four signs in one cycle of four, “You/ and/ me,/ Leo!” In another, I spelled out L-O-V-E in letters I pasted over my eyes as though I was winking the letters. I glued the photos along the outside pages of the atlas. The pictures really did “flip”. My best love letter ever. Two-by-two-inch pics started at the upper corner of the front page and ran all the way down the side to the bottom of the last page. Because, see, Leo? An atlas! We would travel the world together.
My love had swollen great as a hot air balloon. Friends thought I’d lost it. I had. I had become a pathetique, a joke of myself. I’d become something of an absurdist’s performance piece. As though someone had written me into a one-act play. At the end, maybe I’d cue at the deli of death, take my number and eat that final slice of ham. Such zizzing mania. I was a spooky live wire, snaking and sparking. I was a fissure of light wiggling just over there, barely noticeable. Giddy little seam. Widening steadily. Blinding vision.
I knew what Leo told me when he left me was true. He didn’t love me. But my heart was burning so bright. A bonfire in the darkness. The loop of pain I would have to travel to recover myself—seemed eternal. A Venus ring of sorrow. I couldn’t possibly cover all of the miles in a single lifetime. The man I loved didn’t love me. My chest ached from the swallowed tears. Daily machinations became nonsense. A wasteland of thoughts playing double-dutch. All those fleet thoughts, too fast to keep, shooting like stars. I was heavy on heavy ground, arguing with the staggers and the jags.
I drove and I burned. I burned and I drove. I talked to myself and talked to the gift. I followed the AAA map and I smoked and listened to music and talked to myself. Whole conversations, all the voices. Told off all of the offending people of my memories. Said what needed to be said. Impassioned speeches for Leo and why our love was real issued from my lips as though my words could reach his ears. Radio love songs came and went and I cried and doubted and drove and burned. And when I had enough gregarious energy to suppress my viscerous black static, I parked the car and found a bar. And in that bar, I found a new lover to interview. They didn’t know my secrets, my madness, my burning and burning. When all was aligned, I’d ask the person to tell me their greatest love story.
I sought out men and women who had a particular atmosphere of fear in their eyes. People who were soft in a way I recognized. People who were fallible enough to trust me. Then again, I did convey an air of seriousness. And I bought them drinks, which helped. Your story is important, I would insist. I believed this and my conviction shone true, unmistakable. I could spot a lover from a mile away. Takes one to know one, as the saying goes. Lovers and junkies, we breathe a rarified air. My lovers were full to the rim with their stories. I sensed their readiness. They were dreamers, idiots, fools, lovers. Drug addicts. Fuckheads. Bad people and good people.
I relished the danger of the situations I put myself in. There was the obvious physical danger of approaching a stranger alone in a bar and getting into a volatile conversation like this one. I drank with them all, did drugs with a few. I always left it at the bar. If I needed to, I got a hotel room, or—stupid as it was—I slept in my car. I listened and they all talked to me and gave me their secrets, open as God, each telling their guarded passages with what seemed to me to be sweet, terrible relief.
Lover: I was just a kid. I was six years old. But I loved her. I never had that feeling again. She kissed me behind a tree. My mother caught us and yelled at us. That’s all. Her name was Susan.
Lover: I met her at my cousin’s wedding. We danced to “You Make Me Feel So Young” by Sinatra and we were flying. Such a big wedding at the Fairmont Hotel. There were photographers and everything. She had a blue taffeta dress on. She was the most exquisite girl there. I gave her my number and she folded it and folded it until the paper was tiny and put it in her shoe. She was on a date with a family member. I never saw her again. She never called.
Lover: I was traveling in Spain with my mother and father. Granada. I was in tenth grade at the University of Granada. All of us American kids hung out around Plaza Nueva at night. City center. There were lots of travelers living in Granada. I fell in love with a man from Gambia. So tall, so dark. His laugh sounded like a kind of extravagant hiccup. He and the other Africans living in the area would take turns hosting dinner. He was such a good cook and sweet, sweet host. We ate with our hands and told jokes. I would give anything to go back there and be with him again. He told me he had three gifts for me. If you are hungry, there is my food for you. If you are tired, there is my shelter for you. If you are lonely, there is my love for you. He asked me to marry him. Make a compromise, he said. Come to Gambia. Work on his farm.
Me: What happened?
Lover: I was too scared.
Lover: He was a monster when he was angry. Just a really bad guy. I don’t want to get into it. He was in prison off and on. You love someone in prison. Because they keep fucking up. At some point, though, you have to let it go. He didn’t care, is what I found out. Damn, it was so fucking hard to leave. Because when he was good, he was a different person. He was nice. I miss that.
Me: Where is he now?
Lover: I don’t care. I can’t care. I guess I don’t let myself. There were good times we had. Like when he brought me a candy necklace for a treat. He looked like a boy when he gave it to me. I got that feeling like we were two kids playing in a sandbox. He ate the little candies off my neck. We had PBRs. The sun was shining on the porch. I don’t know. There was a sweetness to him. His love was so big when he was good.
Lover: I think of her every single day. I wake up thinking about her. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep thinking about her.
Me: How long has since you saw her?
Lover: Eighteen years, three weeks and twelve days. Nine hours and some minutes.
Me: Have you looked for her?
Lover: She lives in Greece, as far as I know. She’s living with a man named Greg. She went straight on me. I don’t think she exists as I knew her anymore. She’s gone. She was more beautiful than you can imagine. The whole sky. All the stars. She’s still mine in here. In my heart.
I listened and witnessed. Love is not for resolving, I would say to my interviewees by way of encouragement. Love is not a problem to be solved. This helped them take heart. I assured them that I would faithfully transcribe their story. Each knew their puzzles would remain incomplete. It comes with the territory. There were emotional paradoxes and tricks of biology and always, always, there was great and palpable longing. Some lovers were passionate about what they knew to be true; all a’thunderclap they were, ablaze with sureness. Most everyone was pining for someone, someone who was gone or lost. Some were agapes and bore the pain of unrequited love in bitter, gorgeous duende. Some were angry about sex, or loss of youth, or about being rejected, cheated on. Undervalued. Some told me, at first, that their real love was the love relationship they were involved with in the present. Usually over a few drinks, their story would change. Most big love stories lived in the wayback of memory.
Lover: I met a man in my 20’s. He was a comic. A brat. I really hated him at first. He was, I don’t know. Caustic or something. Hateful or something. But, as time went on, I saw him differently. He grew on me. He turned out to be my clarion call. My everything.
Me: Why did it end?
Lover: We got married. I hate him again. He does his thing, you know. He’s a cheater. He’s The One. I wish he wasn’t. This interview is stupid, by the way.
Me: But I’m listening.
Lover: She tried to destroy me. She took every last thing I had. My bank account, my car. She told my boss I did bad things I didn’t do. She set my friends and family against me.
Me: When did this happen?
Lover: Last week. I don’t have anything left.
Me: Why do you still love her?
Lover: I don’t know.
Me: You said she tried to destroy you.
Lover: She did and she didn’t. I have hope. We’ll get back together. We’re supposed to be together. This will all pass.
There was another part to The Lover’s Project. This didn’t get very far. I imagined a perfect love, not Leo, not anyone I’d ever met or known before. I had a friend set up a mailbox for me in Maine, so that I could mail letters this imagined, perfect love. I called him “Vaughan”. I kept trying to write a letter to Vaughan. It wasn’t working. Dear Vaughan, I would write. Today is a terrible day. You’d understand why, since you know me so well. I never finished a letter to Vaughan. I never wrote to Leo, either.
In San Francisco, I drove all of Haight Street, eying myself in the rearview. I’d lived there in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Ten years. I left to go to rehab in Maine, where my parents lived. I went to college in Maine. I had two bachelor’s degrees; one in writing, one in art. And look at me, driving old haunts. Skinny, freckled, wrinkled. Needing a haircut. What a fucking idiot. I blew out Mano ponderosa as way-distant clouds slipped and boiled. I used to say, cheerfully, that there was a new perspective on every San Francisco street corner. Huh. At a light, I thought my foot was on the gas when it was really on the brake. What a grotesque living metaphor. I hated myself intensely. The car was full of snuffed candle smoke. I decided I’d skip seeing the SF friends. I couldn’t manage it. Heroin triggers were everywhere. I didn’t visit the Mission district, didn’t have a drink at The Casanova, the old poetry slam hangout. I sailed through town and escaped.
Adrift in the relative silence, me, a woman in her thirties with no savings, no career, no kids, no house. If there were prospects, I wasn’t able to grock them. Nothing was adding, not quite. Life-questions ignited and re-ignited in my mind. What do I want? What can I actually give back to society? I painted and made art projects and I wrote. How can visual art or writing ever make any money? Does money matter? Do I want kids? Do I know what love is? Will anyone ever love me again? Will they at least pretend to love me? Who cares? What if this journey across America is a Shamanistic journey, what if I am looking for those lost soul-pieces to pull back into my soul? Are the pieces the love stories?
I occasionally ran my questions through my guardian angels, my Shaolin Kung Fu movie monks I imagined were guiding me. The mega-stealth kind that can fly and are enlightened. Fine, they were not real guides, more like magic eight-ball guides. I’d ask: Shaolin monks—good or bad? Shaolin monks gave me a good or a bad. They didn’t like me driving across country. That was bad. They didn’t like Mano ponderosa, either.
The monks had nothing on my pervasive regrets. This is what grief shakes loose. Regrets. My regrets were legion. A seemingly endless supply. I felt great tape of my consciousness winding down. I heard medleys of songs and they stuck in my head. Like the emblematic line of “Welcome to the Jungle” paired with “Superstition”: Welcome to the jungle, wash you face and hands! Or, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” paired with “One Way Ticket to the Sky”: Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate that you hates to make him wait, ‘cuz I gotta one way ticket to the sky! And here and there, I heard a laughing tribunal in my mind—a chorus of laughter. Once a cycle of regret finished, the laughing might start. I kept driving, even though the movie monks told me not to, and I heard this one:
You should have stayed in San Francisco when you were 27, instead of going back home to Maine with your tail between your legs. You could have kicked heroin in SF. Who wanted her parents instead of staying strong? Now look at you. No way you could ever really be here again, huh? No way you could ever rejoin the slam poets, right? No more art shows at SFMOMA. No more working at City Lights Books. The city spit you out, didn’t it. You’re worthless.
—Chorus of laughter.
Steady, now. This is a funhouse. Many faces. Many rides. Zoltar and the monks, telling fortunes. Me, riding the rides. Whose circus is this? My circus. My monkeys:
Maybe it’s true that junkies become junkies because of raw beginnings. That’s what the statistics say. Maybe Mom and Dad harmed you when you were growing up. Maybe that puts you at a disadvantage. It’s okay, Mary, so what. Maybe you dodged another bullet. Maybe you have an advantage, after all. You do have advantages. US citizen. White female. Skills for labor. Decent health if you could take care of yourself. Tall. Always poor me, huh. So you just didn’t get the easiest childhood. You’re an adult now. It’s over. They are just people, Mary. You big stupid baby.
Morris X. The haunting brown eyes of Morris. He called you when he was performing his final act of auto-erotic asphyxiation. His voice was wheezing into the receiver. Remember the sound? And how he begged you to visit him the next day. You said what he was doing was disgusting. He said he loved you. He said he was sorry you couldn’t be together. He said it was his fault and he was sorry. When you hung up the phone, he hung himself.
You couldn’t even go home from SF to bury your grandmother. Junky. And what about what your grandfather, her husband, said on his own deathbed when you were a child? Said: Mary, please keep playing the saxophone. Remember? Tubes coming out of his face. Promise me, he said. Promise me you will. What happened to the saxophone, Mary? Gone, right? Junky. Nobody on planet earth will ever care for you like he did ever again. Where’s you’re grandfather’s sax? Where’s his honor? Where is yours?
You begged Rail X for the number for the dealer. He fought you. His roommate fought you. Punched you. They were trying to protect you. You didn’t give up. You kept going back, days and days of this. You insisted—because Rail X was the one who first shot you up and got you in this mess. You knew you could work on his guilt. Manipulative. Finally, he gave you the number. The dealer would say, “15-20 minutes” when you called. You junky. Three years. You got off it, but you dragged your family into it, your friends, everyone you ever knew and loved. You hurt them all. And now, it’s pills. What a waste of life. How dare you squander the magnificent gift of life you were given.
— Chorus of laughter.
I stopped and visited my friend, long tall Tim X in LA, many years my senior. His cherishing, familiar face was open and empathetic. He saw my pain, slowed me down. He took care of me, if only for a few days. I had forgotten what real friends can do and the warmth between. His love story was about people he called The Underdogs. He said they were the least and the best of us all. He played me songs from his new album and we ate tacos and laughed and he showed me Watts Tower and took me to the horse stables in Athens. I sang my song I’d made up in the car about Jesus, Walmart and Disney. And then it happened. He told me I was one of The Underdogs. He told me my tits were like two happy cheerleaders. We laughed about that. The cheerleaders.
I told Tim my heart was reeling. He told me he could help. Maybe he could fix it. That wasn’t true. He didn’t know about my burning and burning. He didn’t know about the drugs, or if he did, he didn’t say anything. He probably didn’t, in fact, know me at all. I wasn’t one of The Underdogs. On our last night, he put earphones on my head and played “The Greatest” by Cat Power and rocked me like a child. He said there were things he knew that I might not know. Maybe, maybe. HOW. I wished good over him and he wished good over me.
I had nobody to see in Las Vegas, but I went anyway, consulting the AAA map outside of the marked pages. I splurged and stayed at Paris, Las Vegas and ate dinner in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant and swam in their ridiculously ornate pool room. And in the neon glow of night, along the shouting streets, in bars crammed with people who had daydreams in their smiles, I found my lovers.
Lover: I don’t have a “The One”. I’m still looking. Might be what I’m here in Las Vegas for.
Me: I have a “The One”. His name is Leo.
Lover: Okay. Okay. There was this one girl, she visited me and my dad on the lake one summer. So my dad was after this woman, he was single. The woman brought her daughter along and I fell for her in a second. We were teenagers. We went out in a rowboat together one afternoon. Her skin was brown and soft and sweet. I’m still there. The water was lapping at the boat and we were kissing and kissing. She was the best kisser. Like a dream. Nobody has ever kissed me like that since. I’m in love with that kiss.
Lover: I’m married. He’s married. I can’t even tell what’s a lie anymore. All I know is I love him and my heart beats for him. We’ve been having an affair for six years now. I believe we’ll be together again, just us. Some way, somehow, we’ll be together. I don’t even care what happens. There’s just no comparison. The sex. He’s so playful, you know? And his smell. Like warm grass. Grass in the sunshine. My husband knows. We do fight about it. But I don’t care. The heart wants what the heart wants. There’s nothing I can do.
Lover: Well, I’m into BDSM. I’m a freak. Once you go BDSM, you don’t go back.
Me: Yeah, I heard that saying.
Lover: It’s true. Can you guess what I am? I’m not a dom. I’m a submissive. But I like some things my way. I like all the dress-up and the toys and stuff. But I like having a husband to come home to. My husband doesn’t play. My needs are incredibly specific. Very, very particular. All I can say is, husband is really patient. Really patient.
Me: Who is The One? Is there one?
Lover: Well, if I’m being honest. I hate to say it. Probably me.
Lover: I’m fifty now. I work out, the boys love it. All the 20-year-olds call me Big Daddy. It’s the best. Ha-ha! I have a lot of fun with that. We do crazy things. It’s like they can’t touch me. My heart was taken a long, long time ago. My lover died. He had lung cancer. We had such a life together. The white picket fence—we had it. We were in love. We met in high school. He died August fifteenth of last year, in hospice. I still have our house. But I don’t have anyone to come home to. There aren’t those long talks by some hearth or anything. What I have now, is I have sex now.
I drove hard toward Omaha, to spend time with Alice X. I’d lived in Omaha for a few months when I was twenty and worked at her bookstore. Omaha, a six-month stay for me with a friend attending the university there. Some kind of adventure. At age eighteen I had moved away from my parents in Maine—took whatever path I could to leave. My two brothers, Hark and Roy, were all for the move. Hark lived in LA, so my first stop was LA. Then, Omaha. After that, SF. In SF I became heroin addict, and then there was the inevitable rehab. I tried to go to rehab in SF. The lines were three months long. I waited and waited. I tried an outpatient clinic. That was a failure. Finally I called my oldest brother Roy and told him what was going on. Roy still lived in Maine, and had an okay relationship with the parents. He was kind about my predicament, which shocked me. I had expected anger, a backlash. But Roy was warm. He told the parents and the parents called me. They said to get on a plane and home home to Maine. They said they didn’t want me to die. I didn’t want to die, either. I went home.
I traveled over twenty four hours from Las Vegas on through the exquisite and fearsome orange and red and purple mountains and ranges of Nevada and Utah and on through the cool national forests of northern Colorado, stereo blasting, Mano ponderosa burning. I could barely imagine Omaha and Alice. The regrets churned and churned:
You think you’re smart. You think you’re an artist. A writer. Who knows you? Nobody does. You’re a hobbyist. Artist is a praise-word. Writer is a praise-word. If you made real money, you could donate to the SPCA. Or you could volunteer, you know. Find a way to help gestating pigs get pens they can turn around in. Help baby chicks on chicken farms keep their beaks. Baby seals, Mary. Bear-baiting in Maine. Mary! Those animals need you. You’re unbelievably selfish. Remember Carrie X’s sick kitten, Asa? Your friend was feeding him with a bottle every hour and a half. He was very sick and so tiny. You said Carrie could come out with you and get lunch. That Asa would be okay. He died a few days later. He died. His death is your fault. Carrie said it wasn’t your fault. Guess again. Your fault.
You sent Ricky X a note and told him to meet you at the front of the school. You said in the note you were going to kick his ass. He showed up and you grabbed him by his hair and swung him in circles until you couldn’t hold him anymore. And then you dropped him, right there in front of everyone, on the grass. Why, because he tried to be class clown? Because he smelled and everyone hated him? No, because you are bad and you are rageful. Don’t say you did it because you got hit at home. You did it because you are full of hate. That word Aunt Laura has for the devil, the one she can’t say out loud? That’s you.
Just over the Nebraska line, I stopped at the Flying J in North Platte and filled up. They had a game room. I went into the game room for an interview but lost my nerve when I spotted a haunted-eyed man with thick hands and a quivering mustache, watching me as he hovered over a pinball machine. I retreated, got a cold sandwich, chips and a coffee from the retail store and went back to the Toyota.
Alice was in her late sixties. A rangy little lion of a person with short red henna hair and oversized glasses. Her apartment walls and ceilings were busy with color, with her collage-work. If she liked a picture, she’d cut it out and stick it to the wall. Forty years years of collages. Political scenes and romantic scenes and jokes she liked, inches thick. She’d been doing that since her engagement was broken off, way back when, in her 20’s. She’d never had another lover. We drank Veuve Clicquot and she told me about John.
Lover: John X. I don’t like telling this story. But I’ll do it for you. The stupid pigfucker left me for my best friend. I had been trying to find him all night. I finally went to work and saw him driving his motorcycle—it was a twist of fate sort of thing. I flagged him down and he crashed into an oncoming truck. I thought he died. But he was okay and the ambulance took him away. He wouldn’t let me visit. He returned my letters. And then he married my supposed best friend. And I was beautiful. Prettier than you. Prettier than all of you young bitches. I am tout seul. Like Garance in “The Children of Paradise”. Tout seul.
Me: I love you, Alice.
Lover: Fuck love.
I was tired when Alice and I parted ways. Very tired. My yearning for Leo was becoming heavier and heavier. My regrets were wheeling nonstop. There was a traffic jam on I-80 East around Des Moines that had us all idling for an hour and a half. In this slow crawl, I saw a long-haul trucker with a vacant stare—a carful of arguing children—a sad woman in the passenger’s seat hugging a dog in her lap—a man smoking and rocking out to music—and on and on. All horribly impatient. The whole primitive populous, endlessly individual, all needing and doing and going. Stopping and starting for hours made us all angry. Drivers were laying on the horn and flipping each other off. The seemingly endless confrontation of the American crowd. And people looking inquisitively at me inside my car kicked up yet more dust inside me. My regrets crossed over and become a chorus of my secrets, surfacing in my mind, speaking clear, plain English:
You missed Grandma Dixon’s funeral because your habit was raging bad back then. You couldn’t even get on an airplane without being arrested. Mom hates you for that. You deserve it. Couldn’t go to Maryann X’s wedding either for the same reason. You’re a terrible aunt. Bad sister. Bad daughter. Do you ever give anything back to anyone? Ridiculous.
You were raped at age 14. You never told. Why didn’t you tell? You could have had a different life. Someone would have helped you. No, you kept the poison to yourself. And maybe if you weren’t anorexic, you could have kept the baby. Maybe if you didn’t ask for it, maybe if you didn’t like that older man and go on that date. You wouldn’t have been raped then. You would have kept your innocence. It’s your fault. All yours.
Nobody will ever really love you because you are a junky. Not ever. You’re human garbage. Lucky break getting out. Lucky you don’t do heroin anymore. What don’t you do. Just anything else, right-right? Why can’t you stop? Human garbage. Just try to reason with yourself on this one. People like winners. Firsters. Inspiring people, in first place. They don’t like second place, especially. If you’re close to first place and don’t make it, they’ll deride you. Heroin puts you in last place. You’ll just be forgotten. No first place for you. No second place. No third. Last. Not even last. Garbage. Not even garbage.
Don’t you know that global warming is happening? Look around. Why aren’t you helping? What about generations to come? And human beings are hungry, all over the world. You get to eat. You even get “free time.” Recreation, soul-searching, time for art, time for an existential crisis. You have endless nonsense time, you lucky asshole. You don’t act lucky. You don’t even recycle, not enough. What about the fish in the ocean? The worldwide garbage dumps full of plastic waste? You’re a terrible person. You get to go to college if you want. Live in a house by yourself, if you want. All you need is a job. You can have these things. Yet, you choose to remain ungrateful. You don’t even know how to pray.
I drove four hours. That was plenty of navigation for the day. I got a room at The Graduate in Iowa City and slept. When I awoke I was crying and had been crying in my dreams. The pathetic fallacy of rain and tears had followed me. Outside, thunder and lightning were raging, and rain fell loud as trauma. I holed up for the day and then stayed another day. Ordered room service. I slept and dreamt.
I dreamt I was following Leo in the woods of Maine. He was always many, many agonizing steps ahead. I couldn’t find him but I saw him with my heart, walking away, going somewhere else. He was happy without me. He was walking steadily over the soft leafy floor of the woods, a song of himself playing in his face. He was on his way to meet someone else. His steps were natural, careless. He was enjoying the woods, unaware of my running and how I ran, desperate, determined. We were paced apart. And then the woods became hot. And in the heat, the trees fell away and become desert. And the desert opened and expanded and became a dusty city, hot in the sun. And I was riding in a Jimmy army truck, packed with people. And there were Jimmy army trucks as far as I could see. There was a war and everyone would soon be killed. The dust was cloying as the Jimmy trucks drove the streets. A feeling of terror abounded, thousands of us trapped in this place and no way out. I screamed for Leo, screamed for Leo, until I woke up, sweating and shaking.
I looted the mini-fridge and called Leo from the hotel phone. He didn’t answer. Called again from my flip phone. He didn’t answer. I waited a while, turned on the TV. Drank to replace my well of tears with alcohol. Popped more pills. And when the dimension of my emotion went flat enough, when I was good and slick with alcohol and pills, I went out to find my lovers.
Lover: I’ll talk to you about this, but my husband is right over there. Really my soulmate is not my husband. I think he knows. People know, right? I think he does. My real soulmate is my mother. She’s gone now, rest her soul. I mean this in the platonic way, the normal family way, of course, of course. Nobody loved me like my mother. And I will never love anyone else like I loved her. I still love her. Always will.
Lover: I think if you really love someone, you hate them, too.
Me: I don’t agree.
Lover: Doesn’t matter if you don’t agree. It’s just the truth. Even if you’re not trying to do anything. You get that close to someone; all of your emotions are involved. They just are.
Me: Are you saying—you sabotage things?
Lover: I manipulate things. Manipulation doesn’t have to be a negative thing. I do some mean things on purpose. Trivial things, really. To keep her with me. I’m not proud of it.
Me: I would never do mean things on purpose to anyone.
Lover: You don’t know what you’d do. Different loves bring out different things. I’m bisexual. I’m totally different when I’m with a man than when I’m with a woman.
Me: Are you more satisfied with one or the other?
Lover: I like sex with men more, that’s for sure. But my heart wants a woman. Women are more complex than men are. It’s just my opinion. I like their energy.
I was on I-80 East in Illinois, near Naperville, when I determined I would not stop in Columbus to see the friend there. Fuck the whole state of Ohio. Fuck all of this. Fuck The Lovers Project. I pulled over on the highway. The sun was bright and loud. Clanging loud. Hard light. It seemed like a good idea to turn my phone on. Leo might call. I reached for the Olympus, which I’d set in the cupholder. I pressed the record button and my finger slipped. I pressed the record button again. “I’m going home,” I said into the recorder. This statement was definite. Real. I set about rejiggering my map route to drive along Lake Erie. I folded and re-folded the AAA booklet until the route was all set. I needed to get home. I burned and burned for Leo. And I was very tired, indeed. I felt as though my human electricity was slowly going out. A dangerous turning for a junky.
That’s when I saw the blues flashing behind me. A cop. I extinguished Mano and hid it and rolled down my window. He was a state cop, all dressed in brown. He tipped his hat when he asked for my license and registration. A sweet face for a cop, though I knew that didn’t mean anything. He could be as friendly as an asp, for all I knew. I was confident because there were no illegal drugs in the vehicle. Just pills, which appeared to be mine. I wouldn’t be offering those up. He looked and verified and asked where I was headed with all the stuff in the car. I smiled and we chatted. I told him home was Maine. Maine, the cop repeated, nicely enough. The cop warned me not to stop on the highway unless I was having an emergency. He smiled and let me go.
I navigated off the shoulder and joined the flow of traffic. I was strangely calm. The cop followed me for a few miles; then peeled off. Lucky break. I reached for the Olympus again. It was time hear the stories. I hadn’t listened to them in full, not yet. I hit “play” and waited. My voice came on. “I’m going home,” I said. I hit play again. “I’m going home,” the recorder responded. “I’m going home.” I checked the file folder button. Empty. Impossible. All of the interviews were gone. Lost to all eternity. My tears must have been all spent. I couldn’t cry. I knew I would fuck the whole thing up. The sensation was one of an odd vacancy of being. A quiet in my center.
I was eating fried chicken at Waffle House in Austinburg, Ohio when I saw a message blink on my phone. My friends from New Holland, Pennsylvania. I listened. They had a daughter. A toddler. The best thing I ever did, my friend Christa X said in the recording. I can’t wait for you to see how beautiful Mia is. When are you coming? We’re all excited to see you, Mary. A tiny reserve in me mustered a response. I’d go.
I visited a Kroger grocery store in I-don’t-know-where Ohio, along the way east to New Holland, somewhere off the turnpike. I got lost along the way. I had to pick up some things. Toothpaste, snacks, stuff. And if there was a little girl for me to meet, I better not smell too much of cigarettes and bad news. I bought my things and went to the single-occupancy handicap bathroom right there in front of the checkout lanes. I set to work giving myself a wipe-down; I took off my clothes and got to work using the bathroom soap and paper towels. I sighed. I put one of my feet under the tap in the sink and scrubbed with my hands. The warm water felt pretty good. Then the door opened. I had forgotten to lock it. It was a girl of maybe ten in a striped t-shirt. When she saw me naked and hunched like that, she swung the door wider, onto the checkout lanes. “Mom?” she called out to her mother. “Mom?” I leapt to close and lock the door, and as it shut I caught sight of the horrified checkout shoppers in line.
When I slunk back to the car and shut myself in, I had accepted something. I would never be a mother. I probably wasn’t even equipped to be a friend. I was very sick. I also understood, very keenly, that other people needed me. For now, I could pretend. I would just pretend.
It was the late afternoon of a clear and sunny day when I reached Christa and Martel X’s house in New Holland. I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and sandals. I made sure the outfit was as normal as possible. I got out of the car and closed the door. Stretched. The burning and burning, would they be able to tell? I had done my best to wash it away. Mia was too young for all of this. I checked myself in the side mirror. I dug in my jeans for Chapstick and applied it, watching myself.
Christa, long hair flying, came running out onto the lawn with a rapturous face. Such glee, what a wonder. Another pathetic fallacy, but not a cheap one. One for children’s storybooks. Ah, children. Her daughter. Christa had been waiting for me by the window. Sweet and sure as friendship. Christa was not an abstract. There she was. I felt a rushing chill sweep over my arms. Goosebumps. Christa. Hope lit her skin. For some reason, I looked over my shoulder, just quickly.
“Christa,” I said.
“How was your drive? Well, forget that for now. I’m so happy to see you! You’re looking quite slim.”
“Me?” I asked.
“Are you ready to see the best thing I ever did?” There it was again. What she’d said before. “Are you ready to meet Mia?” Christa held out her hand and I took it. We went inside.