It is almost Christmas and almost a new year. I am sure, that like many of you, doing anything productive for the past month and a half has been difficult. It’s hard to rally when it feels like everything is falling apart.
I’m not okay with last week’s election results. This weekend I indulged in self-care. Then I picked myself up. And I’m totally and completely aware of the privilege I have in being able to do that. That I can be upset, but continue on with my normal life without the fear that is plaguing people I love, strangers I see on the street. I am lucky, in so many ways, and the only way I know to help is in small, voiceless ways and acts of kindness. It’s not something I’ll scream about because that’s just not me and again, I’m aware of the privilege I have that I don’t have to scream and I don’t have to fight. But because I’m not screaming and not fighting doesn’t mean that I don’t care.
I am sort of notoriously anti-holiday of any kind. Christmas is awkward. I don’t like turkey, so Thanksgiving is out. Valentine’s Day? More like “drink wine on the couch and cry” day, amiright?? Ha ha! Just kidding. Totally kidding. I’m kidding, really.
Easter, you know. Okay. I guess you could say the Monday holidays are my favorite because free three-day weekend! But IF forced to choose a holiday, like if someone said, “there can only be one holiday ever again, and all of the other holidays change to this holiday, what would you choose??” I’d choose Halloween. I don’t know why all of the other holidays have to change. They could just go away? The world in my head makes no sense.
Anyway, yes, I trick-or-treated most of the way through high school and no I do not feel guilty about that, come at me. Here are most of my costumes through the years. Because I don’t know what else to do with my time apparently.
In kindergarten I was a witch, with a shiny, purple dress that I loved so much I wanted to wear it every day of my life. My dad was Santa Clause. He carried my candy over his shoulder like a sack of toys. It’s one of my earliest memories. I remember how dark it was and I remember the stars and I remember the street where we lived at the time. I still love that costume.
In first grade I was a princess. My grandma made me a costume of pink and I had a sparkly tiara and wand and there is probably still glitter in my grandparent’s house, unless the new owners ripped up the carpet. I was also at the front of the town Halloween parade, so what up lesser first-graders!
In second grade I was a bunny and I was effing adorable. I pinned my little fluffy tail to the back of a sweatshirt and paraded around in pink tights like there were pants. And, it being the nineties, wearing tights as pants was something I did with alarming frequency. (Mother, LOOK AT MY LIFE, LOOK AT MY CHOICES.)
In third grade I was a witch again. You get to a point where you start recycling costumes because the good ones are few and far between. For some reason, this was the year of the mime. So many people were mimes. I think it’s because just a few weeks before mimes had performed at our school? I was not a mime, but it did begin a life-long love of mimes. And street performers. If I see someone performing on a corner, I don’t care what it is, I will watch and take pictures, but I will run away before they make eye contact and expect money. Get a real job, hippies.
Fourth grade was the bride of Frankenstein, but we were too cheap to buy an actual costume and wig, so my mom spray-painted a gray streak in my teased hair and literally not one person knew what I was supposed to be. “umm…zombie ,maybe” was what people said.
Fifth grade was the year I was a cat. Animals are popular and “cute” when you’re in elementary school.
Then sixth grade was the year of the fortune teller, a year of which I am particularly proud. I wore a long skirt and peasant blouse and a colorful scarf on my head and lots of jangly jewelry and I carried a hamster ball as my crystal ball. It was spectacular. Carrying a hamster ball and a heavy pillow case of candy was actually sort of difficult, but I persevered. For the love of costume. Also, yes. Pillow case. I see these kids out now with tiny pumpkin buckets or grocery bags and I’m like, “AMATEURS.” Because I’m mature. Actually I don’t say anything. Most of the time I turn off the light and hide in my house until trick-or-treating is over.
Seventh grade is when things started getting weird and I went out as a “coked-out Punky Brewster.” I made my fuzzy shirt a half shirt, and I wore a pink quilted jacket and shorts and tights and different colored socks and mostly it was an excuse to show off some skin. Seventh grade, yo!
The next year I was a farm girl, with a blonde, braided wig and denim overalls. Creativity is going down the drain.
Ninth and tenth grade and eleventh grade are a blur. Did I even go trick-or-treating? Senior year I went “80s girl” with some friends, but people thought we were the Spice Girls. We just wanted candy, so, you know. Sure. Whatever you say. The fact that I’ve always looked younger than my age was particularly helpful on Halloween.
When I was 25 I walked around Georgetown on Halloween and it was last minute so I threw on a choker and a bunch of rings and went as a 90s teenager. Basically I was myself with a choker.
I didn’t dress up again until last year, when I put a lot of thought into my broken baby doll costume, but the party was dark and people were just like, “oh, a girl in a baby doll dress.” They couldn’t see the cracks I meticulously painted on my face. What a waste. (Kidding! It was fun either way! Even if Nicole got all the compliments on the costume she bought literally THE DAY BEFORE. But it’s fine. I’m not bitter. I definitely didn’t think about it on “Drink wine on the couch and cry day.”)
This year I’m dressing as a writer who wants to finish revisions before NaNo. So, pajamas. And also drinking wine on the couch and crying. Maybe THAT’s my favorite holiday…
Last weekend I went to Six Flags for their Fright Fest event. I have a weird relationship with fear, in that I hate being scared but also I crave it? I guess the difference is, like, when I’m alone in my house and I hear a noise and don’t know what it is and I think it’s a murderer, that kind of fear I don’t like. But controlled fear? Yes, please. Make me scream. It helps that I’m naturally jumpy and jittery. If you’re too quiet and you walk up to my desk unexpectedly, I will jump very high. People have fun with this. It’s a riot.
I used to love roller coasters. I’d be first in line, I’d sit in the front, or the back because sometimes the back is even scarier. There’s this ride in Kennywood, the amusement park in Pittsburgh, called the Jack Rabbit. It’s an old wooden coaster and toward the end it skips the track. If you’re in the back, you fly. It’s terrifying. I loved it. There’s another ride there, one of the oldest in the country, another wooden coaster, called The Thunderbolt. I was SO EXCITED the first summer I was tall enough to ride it. Sometime during high school I went to Cedar Point where I rode my first stand-up coaster and the kind where you’re feet dangle. I rode them multiple times in one day.
And then I grew up. The longer I go without riding a roller coaster, the more terrifying they become. A few years ago, my friend Anna forced me to ride the Cyclone at Coney Island. I held the bar so tight that I aggravated my carpal tunnel and my fingers were numb for days. And because I didn’t want to be a loser, I went on rides last weekend. I strapped myself in, pulling the belt so tight that my hip hurt. I pulled the harness in until I could only take shallow breaths, but at least I wouldn’t move or fall out. I screamed a lot. I swore. But I did it. I only sat one out. Something about Superman. It was so high, guys. I looked at people going up the first hill and then I looked away and then I looked back and they were STILL going. They weren’t even close to the top. So I stayed where my feet were firmly planted on the ground. I faced my fear of roller coasters and I lived to tell the tale. That’s my favorite thing about being scared. Living through it.
Then came the haunted houses. For some reason when I’m scared, my instinct is to cover my head with my hands and crouch down in the fetal position. While walking. So I when through these haunted houses sort of hunched over with my hands in an awkward half-surrender, always ready to cover my head when the danger came. I jumped a lot. I screamed. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who left with a raspy voice that day. But I loved it. Because walking through I know that even if someone follows me, they will stop eventually. When they burst through a wall, I know they’re just going to go back into the wall. It’s scary, but it’s fine.
I guess the true lesson in all of this, is that you don’t want me on your zombie apocalypse team. I knew this, but now it is confirmed. I will not want to drive fast over rough roads and when faced with fear I will crouch into the fetal position with my hands over my head until the threat disappears. Which, in an apocalypse it never does. So that’s how I’ll die. Rolled up like an armadillo or a scared ‘possum. I absolutely will not face real fears. But the fake ones? Bring it on.
The book I’m revising is about an island and the ocean and a lighthouse and saltwater taffy. It’s based, very loosely, on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which is where I went on vacation every summer when I was growing up. I often tell people it’s my favorite place in the US and they ask me why and all I can do is shrug and say “it’s where I grew up going.”
But it’s more than that. When I was a kid, we moved a lot. By the time I went to college I had lived in seven different apartments. I never had a place I could point to and call my childhood home. But for the first ten years I went to the beach, we went to the same house. I had a room I called my own. I would pack up the car with things from home so that every summer it felt like mine. It was the one stable thing in my somewhat unstable life. I never knew how things would be week to week or month to month. But no matter what else was going on I could count on those two weeks every summer.
My mom married into this family so the first year we went I was seven. The weekend before, my grandpa took me to the basement of his house and taught me how to polish shells with vinegar and how to hear the ocean in them. I genuinely believed I heard it in the shell held to my ear. I felt like he had given me the world and one week later my grandmother delivered the world, which was bigger and louder and stronger than the shell had made me believe.
Every summer, in those early years, my grandpa and I would take a night and wrap all of the change we’d saved over the previous year and we’d take it to the bank so I’d have my own spending money. He’d joke that he was going to keep his to buy ice cream but he always gave it to me. And every summer he’d arrive with a new project or toy to entertain us. There was the year of stained glass light catchers and the year of puffy paint shirts and the year of counted cross stitch and the year of the boogie board. The year he introduced Christmas in August and we bought each other souvenirs that we’d wrap and hand out. We used an ottoman as a tree. After that it became a yearly tradition.
Before my grandpa retired, my mom, grandma, and I would drive in on Saturday to set up the house. Every year we’d have lunch at a picnic table on the side of the turnpike and every year, that first night, we had sloppy joes that she’d prepared in advance. My grandpa and dad would arrive the next day so my grandpa could preach one last Sunday. Later, we’d all drive the same day and I’d ride with my grandparents, sitting in the backseat with my diskman while they verbally completed the crossword together up front.
I once claimed that there were still pieces of me in the sands of LBI, but the reverse is also true. There are pieces of the island left in me. I bled in that water when I stepped on shells. I burned my feet on the asphalt when I was too stubborn to put on shoes. I fed birds on the shore. I watched sunsets and sunrises. I flew kites and got buried in the sand and showered in what was basically an outhouse. I climbed on the lifeguard chair after hours, even though we weren’t supposed to and I climbed on the dunes, even though we weren’t supposed to. I walked on the jetties, even though it was dangerous. I climbed all 217 steps of the lighthouse and looked out over the breakers.
I swam in the rain and stood on the shore during a thunderstorm as lightning struck the water. I sat at a table playing board games with my family while a nor’easter blew through and I watched my dad and grandpa chase garbage cans down the flooded street when the wind ripped them from the gravel lawn. I experimented with looks and personalities and music in the shops on the island that were so different from anything in Pittsburgh. I sat on a deck and looked at the stars while the ocean roared in the distance. I know which way is south and which way is north and I know which direction to go to find the grocery store or the candy shop or the lighthouse. I remember the bookstore my grandpa used to take me to for secret outings, which we’d follow with secret ice cream and I remember the bakery he went to every morning for pastries when he went out to get the paper.
This summer I went to the Jersey Shore for the first time in 13 years. We didn’t stay on LBI, but Carey graciously allowed me to detour there for a few hours that first day. I’d always irrationally hated Ron Jon’s Surf Shop because when I was a kid I thought they had too many billboards. But then a few years later I came across one of their stores in Cozumel and it was so important to me. The one on LBI is the original Ron Jon’s and it’s one of the first things you see when you arrive on the island and after 13 years it felt like a banner, waving me in. Welcoming me home. Because I was home. The island feels more like home to me than any place I’ve ever lived.
The house we used to stay in has been torn down and one more than twice its size has taken its place. My favorite ice cream shop is gone. Some stores are still there and some aren’t and the island felt both bigger and smaller than I remembered.
I parked on our old street in front of the spot where our old house sat and I walked to the beach. I stood in the ocean. I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and everybody stared when I waded in to my knees, but I was home. In that moment, everything I’ve been going through the past few years disappeared. Everything felt right and perfect and comfortable, like the only place I belong is standing on the shore gazing out at the horizon.
That is not a picture of my shadow. That is a picture of everything of me that I’ve left behind on LBI.
I was afraid it would be hard to go back because it’s often hard for me to go to Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t. It was easy. It was the easiest thing in the world. They say you can’t go home again, but if that home is LBI, maybe I can.
It is hot. Like, really hot. I love summer and the heat. I love being warm. I’m one of those crazy people who goes to the beach and gets goosebumps when the sun goes behind a cloud. I don’t like to be even a little bit cold. But today is hot and it is humid because it is summer on the east coast. My hair did not survive, but my new natural deodorant did. I’m currently sitting at my desk and smelling myself repeatedly to make sure, but so far so good.
If you are in the market for a natural deodorant that works well, I suggest Meow Meow Tweets natural deodorant. I prefer the lemon eucalyptus but both work equally well and are scented very subtly, unlike the Secret scented deodorant which smells so terrible when you actually sweat. I’m a gross person and I sweat because I like heat but I also like wearing as many clothes as possible, so deodorant is a necessity. This one is a little pricey, but cancer treatments are even pricier, so I figure it evens out.
(I do not believe anti-antiperspirant/deodorants cause cancer. Most of the time I believe that. My friend M, concerned about this, once wrote Secret a letter (a letter. I’m so old) asking if she should be concerned and they wrote back and assured her that it didn’t and why shouldn’t we believe a corporation that is in the business of selling product?)
Walking back to work I was hit with a memory of my friend Sarah and I going to the local water park. Sandcastle. We made it a tradition and because it was before we could drive we took two buses and walked almost a mile to get there and we usually got off the bus and went the wrong way, so that mile was actually more. All it cost was like $23 and tons of blistering sunburn because for some reason we always thought, “it’s not like we’re going to the pool or the beach, we don’t need sunscreen.” Did you know that water reflects the sun and makes it more dangerous? I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds like it could be. Now I sometimes put sunscreen on if I’m just driving in the middle of the day so that I don’t get burned through the window.
The same friend with the Secret problem used to do research in a melanoma lab. The point is, my friend M, has over the years convinced me that everything in the world is dangerous. Also that anything over SPF 50 is the same. Don’t be fooled.
I mostly wrote this blog to tell you about my new deodorant. Who knew I could go without the anti-antiperspirant? Other things I’m loving are this lotion from Khiels, which is making my calloused feet so smooth and pretty and Starbucks’ vanilla sweet cream cold brew. How did I ever live without vanilla sweet cream cold brew? Sometimes they run out of cold brew and I ask for it to be made with iced coffee and it’s usually fine but today the barista got SO CONFUSED. It’s exactly the same with different coffee. I don’t even know.
In eight days I’m going to the beach. I haven’t seen the ocean in so many years. I’m going to stare at it and take a video so I can stare at it at home and maybe I’ll collect some seashells to bring back with me and maybe some sand?? Who knows! I’m going to look at the ocean (while wearing natural deodorant and SPF 50.)
My dad was a drunk. These are words I’ve become capable of saying only in the past few years. He was sometimes mean and rarely violent but he was loud. He was so loud. My mom and I spoke in whispers and he could be heard through walls and doors and, if the windows were open, down the street. If the windows weren’t open you could still hear him as you approached the front door. He was tall, he was muscular, he demanded to be heard and commanded attention and people gladly gave it to him because he was different out in the world than he was at home. He was funny. My friends loved him and didn’t understand why I never wanted anyone to come to my place.
My dad was a drunk, but that didn’t define him. There were drinking years and sober years and sometime what we thought were sober years were actually drinking years and vice versa. My dad was kind. He would go out of his way to help someone. He loved fiercely, he was loyal. He was the only one to ever tell me I could be anything and actually mean it. When I wanted to be on Broadway he told me he’d get me into Julliard. When I wanted to be a rock writer he played me music and talked about bands and read my Rolling Stone magazines. He hated any music produced after 1990 but he kept an open mind for my sake. “Green Day isn’t terrible,” he said once. When I said I wanted to be a writer he teared up and told me I was so talented. When I said I wanted to study abroad he was the only one who said we’d find a way to make it happen. He was gone before he could. My dad was the only one who asked me things about my life. About my friends, about school, about boys. He was so proud when I made honors society and he waited impatiently for my mom to get home so we could go to the ceremony. He was excited and she was annoyed to go out again. He was drinking, but we didn’t know yet. I didn’t make honors society the next year.
My dad could play the guitar like a rockstar but I preferred when he played the piano. There’s a difference between playing the piano and making music and my dad made music. He had Keith Richards dreams in a lower-middle class suburban life. He had talent but no way out.
He was bipolar with ADHD before anyone even knew what those things were. When he was low he was so low. There were days I’d come home from school worried I’d find a body instead of him. Other times I’d come home to find all of the furniture rearranged, the house spotless, meticulously cleaned. All but my bedroom, which he’d tear apart in order to force me to clean. He looked through my stuff, he read my journal. When I was staying out until 4am with my boyfriend, he was the only one to suggest I should have a curfew.
He’d forget to pick me up when he said he would, would forget about doctors and dentist appointments. He couldn’t hold down a job. Sometimes when he did pick me up he’d do his best to embarrass me if I was standing with a boy. He’d pull away as I reached for the handle. He’d yell my embarrassing nickname out the window. The boy would laugh, think how fun my dad was. He’d tell me that the next day and then I’d avoid the boy so he’d never know the truth.
We used to go the beach every summer with his parents and those were the only two weeks I could be absolutely certain he’d be fine. If he drank he hid it. He lowered his voice because my grandmother would yell at him, concerned he was disturbing the neighbors. He was a swimmer, had been a lifeguard, would take me out in the water, out to the sandbar. He’d tell “under” or “over” when waves came and if I started to drift away he’d grab my hand and pull me back.
We moved a lot because he punched holes in walls. Something happened when I was nine, something huge, life-changing, something I needed my dad to handle, but he was passed out. Not long later my mom and I were under police protection while he was being sent off to rehab for the first time. The rehab would happen again, the police knew our names, were familiar with us.
He was my stepdad. He stepped in when I was four, when my real dad walked out and never looked back. He would take me to the mall for tiny hotdogsand he’d read to me and he sometimes told me it was me who made him fall in love with my mom.
He never missed a birthday when I was growing up. He always made it special, always made sure that even if I got nothing else for Christmas I’d get the one thing o wanted most. Then one year he missed my birthday. But he called on the next one and that was the last time I spoke to him.
I’m writing this in the past tense, but my dad is still alive. I haven’t seen him in ten years, haven’t spoken to him in seven. He’d been in and out over the course of a decade until my mom kicked him out for good. Three years ago I wrote him a letter. I explained that there are only so many times you can listen to broken promises, only so many times you can forgive someone before it becomes detrimental to both of you. I said I was sorry. I said I loved him. But it was too much at the time and I backed away. He wrote back, he didn’t call. He respected my boundaries. He sent me Christmas cards and birthday cards until he realized that the letter for me was closure and he gave up.
He sent me another letter this year on my birthday so I’ve been thinking about him a lot. The good and the bad, how for so long I only remembered the bad but only recently allowed myself to remember the good. Today is Father’s Day and I’m writing this on my phone at Starbucks after scrolling Twitter and reading stories of amazing dads and fearless dads and dads who didn’t disappear into bottles of Jack Daniels or even Listerine, in the most desperate times. I’m writing a book about the ways people disappear. Into water, into things, into each other and it was a long time before I made the connection. The island is our island. This is the story of my life.
I might delete this later or I might not. But it’s Father’s Day, a day I normally despise and this year I feel okay about it. I don’t hate it. My dad was a drunk but he was also so many other things.