Monday, February 27, 2006

A Mildly Censored San Francisco Rhapsody

It’s pouring rain in San Francisco. It’s nighttime. I’m in a black Mercedes Benz that’s winding down the famous tortuous curves of Lombard street in Russian Hill. I’m sitting unnaturally straight in my heated leather passenger seat, terrified, thrilled. The driver is my literary hero, Kate Braverman. She’s my boss now and we’re coming home from the grocery store where she let me pick out anything I wanted and put it in the shopping cart.

“Normally I never drive in a monsoon like this.” She had yelled over the music.
This then, of all moments to take me down the most treacherous, scenic street in the whole city.

“Look at this,” Kate says as the car hinges itself over the horizon. In front of me, down below, glittering in the rain and fog is practically the entire mystical Valhalla of San Francisco. “I like to come here and say ‘I’m the girl in the postcard.’ You can be the girl in the postcard too.” She says yanking at the wheel with two hands like we’re aboard a schooner on choppy seas.

My eyes fill with tears.

It took me 8 months to figure out a way to get back here but I did it.

Sometimes when I fall asleep the last thought on my mind and the first one I have in the morning is simply “California.” Sometimes the last thing I whisper to Mark at night, and the first thing I say in the morning is just “California.” And we smile at each other and into the darkness of the room. The California darkness. Then I have trouble falling asleep because I’m excited about California. I bounce out of bed early in the morning for no other reason than that same electric thought: California.

This is not my life. And it is. I’m here. Buying peaches to seal the deal on February. Perhaps the only February of my life through which I’m not stalked by overpowering impulses to negate myself. I’m here. I’m sitting in the study of the woman who wrote a novel that turned me inside out and shook out the guts that clung to the lining of my being’s pockets. I’m drinking her beer and she’s asking me what I think about the passages her French translator has recommended for readings. I’m practically mute. I pick up a copy and follow along as she reads. Again, I’m almost crying.

Kate keeps saying I look so much better than when we first met almost exactly a year ago. “I mean what have you done? Did you gain some weight?” she asks. I navigate the shopping cart out into the drizzly night. “I had a rough spring last year, Kate.” I admit, knowing that’s all I have to say for her to understand what I mean. “And,” I add, working up a tearful grin, “I moved to California.”

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Discipline and Organize: A Hazy Outline for Becoming

Any proud slayer of gloating demons will be happy to know that today it is actually raining in sunny California. It’s coming in small drops, taping like transistor static on my skylight and the flat roof of our warehouse abode in West Oakland. Outside, water swells into the bike-menacing old train tracks that snake through the industrial corridor I now call home. Tufts of weeds poking though the buckled cement shuckle and stagger in the intermittent showers. The Semi-truck cabs that line our street stand mute in the grey weekend repose, beads of water dripping from their curly red coils onto oil-spotted patches of road. The yowling stray cats have too been quieted.

The house is cool and quiet and dark. It’s taken to pouring once an hour so I’ve pretty much resigned myself to never leaving the house, obtaining the cup of coffee I’ve been dreaming about seemingly since last night. I move through the spacious room I am subletting from my friend Nat, thankful for its special variation. I spend an hour on the little couch reading, and then migrate up the shallow staircase to “the office” where I contemplate the onerous chore of organizing my defunct email address book, or attempting to cull together the little mini videos I took in Mississippi and sending them to Hank for his screening.

Perhaps not since the 8th grade have I felt so inspired to organize my life. Like 8th grade, this desperate quest for self-improvement hinges obsessively on the acquisition of a common material object: a planner.

Most of you know this, but in case it’s not readily apparent, I failed out of school my entire life until I got to college. My memories of school are dominated by mornings spent in the principle’s office or a locked supply closet (yes, that is true, it was a private parochial school- they could do that there) and slews of failed organizational and behavior modification regimens (the gold stars, the daily reports, the threats, the entreatments). I was forever losing or forgetting my homework or plain refusing to do it. I engaged my haggard teachers in power struggles, which ultimately, we both lost. I suffered from a terrible lack of confidence but this might not have been outwardly apparent; rather, I came off as rather unlikable kid. Defiant, petulant, stubborn, lazy.

My parents begged me repeatedly to “get with the program” to learn how to “play the game” so I could be happier and live up to my vague, lofty potential. Despite harboring such deep, misplaced anger for my authorities, and myself part of me really longed to succeed. I didn’t really like failing. When I think back on the late-August ritual of school-supply shopping, it’s a freighted sort of ceremony in my memory. I selected my pencils, trapper keepers and packs of pristine ruled paper with hopeful solemnity. Every fall was a clean slate. A chance not to be a fuck up.

The planner is a kind of scholastic coming of age object. It enters the panoply of academic accoutrements roughly around middle school. The planner signifies that one is adult enough not just to organize and manage her responsibilities, but to recognize this process as some meta-scholarly project in and of itself, possessing its own merits as milestone of intellectual development. It was not that the planner would simply allow me to remember I had a vocabulary quiz on Tuesday; it was that the manager of an effective planner had a handle on the broader scope of her life. She was prepared. She impressed kids and adults alike. She had the tools and the ironclad will to see her ideas through from whims to realities. She didn’t just get by, she got things done.

The planner became a magical talisman or sorts. I always picked out nice ones, which my mother, ever hopeful, always agreed to buy. I would inhale the crisp, acrid scent of the rubber-binding, stroke the Velcro closures and as I penciled my name and contact information into the appropriate slots on the first page, I would think to myself “ This is the year I get organized. This is the year I do well.”

Of course it never worked.

In college I evened out somewhat. I found my voice and got better at playing the game. Suddenly, teachers didn’t hate me anymore. They were no longer my adversaries but fountains of knowledge I could badger giddily with questions in the hall, office-hour drop by’s. I became a good student but only by virtue of my enthusiasm, never by my habits. I still lost and misplaced things. Forgot things. Missed things. I never flaked out on the important stuff, yet I was never as prepared as I should have been.

School is done now (for the time being), so my anguished disorganization seeps out, oozing unfettered into all other aspects of my life. I think I already lost one of my w-9 forms so how am I going to do my taxes? I sent my transcript request to my college fully a week late (because I couldn’t find an envelope for three days and contemplated making one out of paper but then couldn’t find tape) and had to then concoct an apologetic lie for the scholarship committee; this blog still looks like garbage because I keep saying I’m going to hunker down and really learn some web design but never do it; Shayne and I are supposed to be starting a Clean cover band called “Tidy” but have yet to actually sit down and work on the songs. Our Hot Toddy cocktail recipe book is already meeting a similar purgatorial fate.

When it comes down to it I think there are two fundamental types of people in this world. People who can get things done and people who can’t get things done. It’s difficult to convey how desperately I long to change camps. I’m hoping that circumstances are conspiring to help me.

In a surreal turn of events Kate Braverman , an author
I’ve long admired has hired me as her personal assistant. She’s a brilliant artist and a volatile personality. Already she’s been hurling me scores of assignments a swirling maelstrom of PR phone calls, Internet research, and emotional support. I’m ecstatic. I am also scared. Here, a famous person, an intense personality, is placing faith in me as person capable of organizing and managing her affairs. At first I was terrified by her brusqueness, her barrage of demands, but then it mellowed into a strange kind of inspiring comfort. I need to become the kind of person who will not put things off or let them fall through the cracks. I need to become that person in order to help someone else. And in the process, hopefully, I will grow more adept at my managing my own life.

I walked around the mission all day Friday with my friend Karl drinking coffee and catching up on life, dragging him into every book and stationary store on Valencia Street. In my mind I had the image of the perfect organizer I need to pull this off. It would be kind of like a moleskin notebook, a substantial but portable size with a hard damage-resistant cover. In the back it would have an address section where I could keep and easily access the numbers Kate has me digging up and calling (The web master at the Bay Guardian to demand a link be created from her interview with William T. Vollman to her website, the events coordinator at a prominent Berkeley book store to set up a reading in May etc.) As an ideal sort of bonus it might have a little pocket where I could store clippings and scraps of dubious note. Finally, it would be beautiful and expensive (like $12) because whenever I saw it I wanted to feel good about it.

I grew increasingly frustrated leafing through a million notebooks that were not the one I wanted. I dismissed them for offenses like narrow pages, cheesy San Francisco themed cover art, lack of pleasing, swaddling, elastic binding loop. Eventually, I gave up on my dream of the Address book/notebook combo and settled on a delightful, marble-covered number that meets all the other qualifications. I have decided to designate 26 pages at the rear and make the appropriate markings in Sharpie Marker. My dream is to be able to close each day with a little ‘to-do’/’done’ list on a page of the notebook. I will keep running tabs on the tasks I’ve accomplished and those I’m still working on.

I have bought the notebook, but of course, have yet to do any of the other stuff. I went so far as to peel off the giant sticker on the back but in all honesty, Shayne actually did that because he likes peeling stickers off of things.

I need to break a quarter of a century of poor organizational habits. I am trying to become a different kind of person. The kind of person who actually gets things done. I welcome your encouragements and your suggestions.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Citizen Impotent: A Walk in the Park with New Orleans City Cops

Friday night was my last night in New Orleans. I’d been spending quite a bit of time with my childhood friend Jason who had mysteriously appeared in the city a few days ago on a spiritual sort of odyssey in a borrowed truck. J had generously offered to drive me to the airport early Saturday morning and we were both exhausted from Thursday night’s drunken escapades that had begun uptown at a sweltering, life-affirming performance by a 10 piece brass band, and ending (for me) in unconscionable stupidity and recklessness: stumbling around the Bywater at 4 am, oscillating with my computer in search of a wireless signal like a nut on a beach looking for gold before settling down in a pile of debris, weeping, writing an email to my estranged high school sweetheart. I haven’t yet figured out how to triage this disaster but it will have to wait. Jason and I had one last order of important business around midnight last night: A mission to the French Quarter for French Fry Po-boys.

The idea of a French fry po-boy will likely shock and disturb anyone but native New Orleanians and possibly Pittsburghers. It’s a rhapsodic treatise of starch: French bread stuffed with French fried potatoes and topped with a standard array of sandwich fixings. I’d had one on my last trip to New Orleans, but this time around I’d come close to missing out, subsisting largely on fried eggs, coffee and beer. We headed to our friend Shanna’s place of employment, the Quarter Master at the end of Bourbon Street. Our order took eternity to process which gave us ample time to discuss vegetarianism with a heavy set young cop waiting in line for his bar-b-qued catfish. “Y’all is ‘try-atarians’” he guffawed affectionately when we confessed that we eat meat from time to time but usually feel guilty about it.

It was midnight and we were exhausted; too tired to even drink beer and opting for ginger ale instead. We walked to the dog park on Dauphine and Governor Nichols and settled down on some brick rubble stumps to devour our food. To our dismay the guys had forgotten the cheese we’d requested (necessary from an architectural perspective as it sorts of binds the fried together in a gooey suspension). Luckily I had managed to hustle them for two sides of olive salad, which we dumped on in oily deluges all over the desiccated messes. As we ate and chatted a strange young man pulled up a rubble heap nearby. He was also eating a sandwich and I exchanged some friendly words with him, though his erratic behavior (making clicking noises, talking half to us and half to himself) was rather annoying. He seemed like a bit of a tweaker and soon took off down the block muttering.

Jason and I were nearly done with our greasy snack when a police squad car pulled up on the sleepy corner. Tow hefty cops emerged and quickly approached us.
“What are you doing here?” They demanded gruffly.
“Just eating a sandwich and drinking a soda.”
“Where you from?”
“Michigan.”
“Where you staying?”
‘The Bywater.”
“What street?”
“Dauphine.”
“You working here?”
“No, just visiting a friend?”
“Where is your friend?”
“Dauphine, 3200 block.”
“We gonna find anything on you tonight?”

Their tone was absolutely terrifying. At this point Jason, ever calm and compliant, a seasoned punk with lots of cop experience in his repertoire, quietly raised his hands. One cop began roughly rummaging in his pockets. A cigarette lighter and a box of dental floss clattered to the concrete. I stood by nervously, grateful we’d been drinking soda; grateful they wouldn’t find anything on us. These were very mean cops with an agenda of terror and things were only about to get worse.

“What are you doing to them?” A voice called. Our friend the sandwich eating tweaker appeared in the park behind us. “They were just eating a sandwich.”
“This ain’t no place to eat.” A cop barked.
“Why is that?” they guy fired back.
“Cos people get robbed here that’s why.” Said the cop, his temper visibly flaring. Adding “Who are you?”
“I’m Arthur.”
“Get over here.” The cops demanded.
“Fine,” said the guy hopping off the brick wall, “but I felt a sure felt a lot safer before you guys showed up.”

Wrong thing to say to vicious, crooked cops. Wrong thing.

“You feel safer without us?” they snarled and within seconds they had the guy bent over the back of the cruiser and were snapping on the cuffs.

“Help me!” the tweaker screamed. He looked at me and Jason and screamed it again
Then he started hollering and struggling and the cops knocked him to the ground and he bit one of the cops on the hand. “Fucking shit.” The cop swore, reaching for his radio, blood pouring down his thumb. “Jesus fucking Christ help me somebody! The guy screamed, “I need to go to a mental institution.” The cop kneed him in the nuts but he kept squirming. Jason and I looked on terror stricken, unsure what to do. I climbed outside my body and saw myself utterly frozen, impotent. I knew that the guy was crazy, probably on crystal meth or something, but I also knew the way the cops were treating him was wrong. Finally, I knew that their wrath was boundless and they were only too eager to rain it on everyone. And they had guns. “Jason,” I whispered panicked, “what do we do? What do we do?”
“Abby, there’s nothing we can do.”

At this moment a bouggie kind of hippy guy striding ahead of a small retinue of well-dressed friends arrived on the seen.
“What’s going on here?” He asked breathily “I heard someone calling for help!”
“Who are you?” bellowed one of the cops
“I’m a person who heard someone calling for help.” The guy said.
“Come ‘ere!”
And they immediately handcuffed this guy too and shoved him into the cruiser. While that was going on the tweaker broke free from the bleeding cop and booked off down the street, hands still shackled behind him.

“Let’s go.” Jason whispered, tugging on my elbow. We began heading briskly towards the car in a state of utter shock. “What the fuck was that?” I gasped. My eyes were tearing and I could feel the French fry po-boy rising in my stomach. I had just witnessed a gruesome abuse of police power. “Sweetie,” Jason said, putting an arm around me as we hurried down Esplanade, “Those were very bad cops.” My stomach dipped again as two cruisers, rushed past us, sirens wailing. Inside the truck we tore up the dashboard looking for cigarettes but turning up only a butt that we smoked down beyond the filter.

J and I stayed up late replaying the scenario trying to make sense of it. Maybe they had gotten a call about a disturbance and were actually looking for the tweaker. Maybe they would have left us alone if he hadn’t shown up. Maybe they would have booked us on some bogus pretext and sent us to prison (that’s right, there’s no jail in New Orleans, only prison). I have witnessed strange and upsetting police action at protests but even that I felt could somehow be justified by desperation to control crowds. This was different. This was a totally unprovoked, Gestapo style display of intimidation. I felt like I had been tested and given no chance to do anything but fail. That impotence left me deeply disturbed.

On our way down to Quarter Master, Jason and I had agreed that New Orleans is one of the few cities in the world, probably the only one in the United States that can really be said to have soul. It’s really, really alive. More than New York, more than San Francisco, more that any other crazy place I’ve spent time, New Orleans is a whole other animal. And it’s alive because it’s just that: it’s crazy feral. It’s full of mysticism and darkness and voo doo and the celebration and the gaiety and the art and the carnival there is unparalleled in this country of ours, but that is all equal to the crime and savagery baseness that haunts its magical streets.

I love New Orleans but ultimately, with its swampy summers, and torrid sensuality, and bleakness and destruction and fevered heights and depths of desperation, it overwhelms me. I’ve remarked to people that living in New Orleans for one week right now, during post-Katrina mardi gras, is equivalent to 6 months of life pretty much anywhere else. New Orleans hardly feels like earth. Awed, elated, disturbed, I’m running to the west coast. Running, but unable to keep from peering back.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sketches: New Orleans

Of all the cities I visited last summer, two in particular stood out as the most magical, mystical cities in the country. I am moving to one (San Francisco) but not before waylaying in the other: New Orleans.

This was my first experience of New Orleans if anyone is interested. A few months ago I got a drunken friendster message from an old high school acquaintance who has been living down there for the last 7 years. She graciously offered me her home as a crash pad so my brother and I drove down here from Mississippi on Saturday night, arriving just in time for the Krieux du Vieux parade, the first parade of the Mardi Gras season.

In the past few days there has been much to digest. What follows then, let’s agree to treat as sketches. These vignettes are perhaps as much a celebration of subculture as they are snapshots of New Orleans as it was, as it is and as it will be.

The Bywater District and how to Bucket Flush

I’m staying in the bywater district, an area I think is sort of northeast but I’m not exactly sure. I’ve been warned that in this city a grasp of cardinal directions is hopelessly elusive. The narrow streets are lined with low, peeling little bungalows. The area has been slowly gentrifying for a few years now. It was not hit particularly hard by the storm but was not exactly glamorous to begin with. My friend moved into her current place on Dauphine a few months ago after her home had been flooded. This place used to belong to a mother and her grown daughter who had lived there for many years who evacuated and never returned. They left some antique furniture the landlord has talked about reclaiming. My friend was able to move in on condition that she does a lot of the cleaning and restoration work herself. The people I’m meeting here are not the kind of rich people who are paying to have work done for them. They do it themselves. They scrub and strike and saw and hack and haul.

I’ve always considered myself an interloper between punk and hipster subcultures. Ultimately too prim for the former and too scrappy for the latter I have a chameleon ability to adapt cultural surroundings. If it’s obnoxious retro-clothing and ipods and video artists then so I will be. If it’s dirty fingernails and bike grease and dumpstered amenities so be it too. Right now I’m nice and dirty. To some friends I’m on the prima donna end of the spectrum, others might be dismayed by the habits I can lapse into: sleeping in clothes and then wearing them again and again, bathing only now and then, in a dirty crooked, claw foot tub, no shower, no door, but hot water yessssss. I’m reminded how silly and stupid it is to put some much worry into the hyper-hygienic ritualistic concern over appearance. In an odd way I’m much prettier like this. If you think about it, that sort of thing is much more of a hassle than having to flush a broken toilet by dumping a bucket of used sink water into the bowl. Much.

Notes on the Bywater:

-Desire and Piety streets are parallel to one another
-I come to café Flora on Royal and Franklin every day and drink coffee
-The streets, even and especially the remote ones, are littered with mardi gras beads. It’s eerie.
-At Markey’s bar on Royal you can play free pool, free darts and free shuffleboard. Shuffleboard I’ve discovered is a game of delicacy, control and restraint. Weighted chromed pucks hovering atop a suspension of wax sand, coasting along a 20-foot expanse of shiny, shellacked wood is one of the most pleasing things I can think of in this world.
-A Few blocks south of Luisa, the train tracks run. They are busy tracks used, I think, for switching. The freight trains therefore lumber through very slowly and often stop to back up and shift. You could get stuck at the crossing for 15 minutes sometimes listening to the clanging chimes, but two feet from the train. What a beautiful place to get stuck.
-The huge gutted lot to the east by the river used to be warehouses full of propane. After the storm the warehouses exploded. People who were here said it sounded like artillery shelling.


Dogs

Everyone here has a dog. I’m staying with two dogs. Dinah is a white pitbull, fierce looking but quite affectionate with people. Not so much with other dogs, except, luckily, her new roommate, the puppy. Someone found the puppy in the neighborhood and gave it to Casey (who lives around the corner) at a party. Casey couldn’t take it home because one of his houseguests has a pitbull named Fiona who was a rescued fighting dog who cannot be around other dogs as, quite plainly, she will kill them. Thus the puppy stays with us. We don’t know what he is or how old he is or even what his name will be once Casey and Ben can adopt him. All we know if that he’s intoxicatingly cute, a little black thing with floppy ears and outsized paws, and that he has a mysterious growth on his stomach we think might be a hernia. We’re trying to get him an appointment at the vet. I spend a fair amount of time cleaning up his messes (this morning, on my sleeping bag case) and attempting to discipline him, a failure of course. I love the puppy and he’s taken to sleeping with me at night. I have a new alarm clock. It’s a bite on the face.

Jeff and George

I’m sitting outside café Flora writing. I’m in the company of a handsome, (very) young man who just yesterday hopped freight trains in from Memphis. He’s one of the many houseguests piling into Ben and Casey’s dilapidated house and last night, after the Kriex du Poux festivities in the street, elected to spend the night on a futon in the garbage outside some house on desire. He emerges from the café with a coffee and a hardboiled egg and a great grin on his face. “Someone bought this for me>” he beamed, palming the egg with joy. That someone was sitting behind me smoking a cigarette and drinking an amazingly carnelian colored beverage. “Fresh juice with a little bit of everything in it.” He says to me. He also bought a coffee for a slight, middle-aged guy in a beret who sits down next to him. They begin talking to each other and also sort of to me about the FEMA evictions currently raging here. The man in the Beret, a native New Orleanian, had spent 6 days in dome, and used to work as a house painter but is currently homeless and out of work. This is how the conversation evolves:

“What you need to get by painting?”
“I don’t know, ten an hour I’d be alright.”
“Can you be here tomorrow, nine am?”
“Yeah, yeah I can.”
“Alright meet me here and I’ll give you some painting work. I’m trying to build up some more jobs.”
“You got any painters whites I could wear?”
“No but I got some coveralls you can use.”
“Thanks that would be great man. What’s your name man? I’m George.”
“I’m Jeff”
(Handshake)
“Nice to meet you. 9 am tomorrow. I’ll put you to work.”

And they part.


More sketches to follow.
I’m totally and completely overwhelmed. Drifting.
I think that this is the craziest place I could be.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mississippi Motion

Loyal Readers,

Let's meander, together for a little while:

Mississippi Motion

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pornography: A First Exposure

What follows is an account of the first time I saw pornography. It is not a sexy story.

*

My friend Mariya has been working on a short story called Trumpet , a surreal fable about an unlikely communiqué between two strange and disparate worlds. Early in the story is a scene in which a young girl stumbles upon a stack of pornographic magazines in an alley. Curiosity tempered by a calm nonchalance, she takes one home to discover it serves as a portal to another realm.

Initially, I had a little trouble moving beyond this early part of the story. It was eerie, uncanny. What Mariya had described was almost exactly my first encounter with pornography. Though my reaction was hardly that cool.

It’s probably 1990 or so. I’m about 10 years old. Back then, before it was walled off and made the exclusive property of the U of M football team, the giant field next to Yost arena in Ann Arbor was more or less open to the public. It was right across the street from my childhood home on Granger and State. My brother and sister and I used to traipse over there on windy afternoons and fly kites. Due to a work related Sabbath prohibition against carrying objects outside the house (yes, I am for real), on Saturdays we would wander over there empty handed and entertain ourselves by snooping around the railroad tracks at the outlying western perimeter of the field.

Like normal kids, my brother and I were obsessed with treasure. Raised by an obsessive antiques-collecting father we had a broad appreciation for what counted as treasure. A faded pop can for instance, the kind bearing an unusually shaped, antiquated looking mouth, was for us, a magical, monumental find. We horded this kind of junk (cans, torn, moldy paperback books, dirt encrusted shards of cheap jewelry) with a sort of mythic-taxonomic fascination. We imagined great narratives about their origins, elaborate epics and ghost stories whose veracity we’d manage to convince ourselves of chillingly.

Dad instilled in us an innate curiosity and appreciation for every over-looked component of the man-made material universe. He treated every piece of junk we ever brought him with an awed collectors eye. “Very neat” he’d conclude approvingly, turning over a faded bottle cap while we stood there expectantly. “But is it collectible,” we’d press him. “Hang onto it and we’ll see if we can look up any information about it.”

One Saturday afternoon we were playing around the tracks when something colorful, mashed up against some weeds on fence caught my eye. It was the glossy pages of a magazine flapping in the wind. I moved a little closer, sensing with a strange foreboding that this was something bad, something my siblings should not see. I shooed them home telling them I’d catch up soon and went to investigate this ominous object.

I had never seen a dirty magazine before. It’s difficult to explain the way in which this visual/cerebral experience was so alien. Later on, as I gained some perspective and points of reference on this sort of thing, I could classify the magazine I saw that day as decidedly not of the innocent, soft-core porn variety. In developmental terms this was, rather plainly, a lot of information to assimilate.

With a terror-stricken fascination, akin to rubbernecking at the scene of a gory accident, I flipped through the magazine. There were strange objects being inserted in the women’s hairless vaginas. What were they? The women looked pained. Worse, they looked mean. Their eyebrows were drawn on in sharp, nefarious arcs, their lips curled into haughty sneers. What did the words “Creaming Pussies” mean? This phrase locked itself into my mind, repeating itself hauntingly, obsessively.

After a few moments I threw down the magazine, shuddering in disgust. What should I do with it? I couldn’t just leave it there. What if some other kids found it? I can’t remember if I threw it in a garbage can or stashed it behind some leaves or what. All I knew what that it was noisome to the touch. I wanted it burned. I wanted it erased from the universe.

I returned to my parents’ house queasy and uncharacteristically withdrawn. Predictably, that night I had terrible trouble falling asleep. The phrase “creaming pussies” wouldn’t leave me alone. The alien flesh and the degradation harassed me relentlessly. Why did those girls do that? I felt so sorry for them. Who wanted to look at that? Why? Who would leave it out the railroad tracks to torture me? The hours rolled away and my anguish grew into a feverish panic. I sat in bed, in the glow of my nightlight racked with misery. Eventually I began sobbing and calling for my mother.

My mom appeared in my doorway, bleary eyed, rubbing her arms in her flannel nighty. She sat down and I crawled into her lap weeping disconsolately. I felt guilty because by seeing the dirty pictures I had somehow become implicated in the business of pornography. I was ashamed but I thought I would die if I didn’t unburden myself so hiccupping, sniffling, I told her about my discovery at the railroad tracks. My beautiful mother, so warm and comforting assured me that I had done nothing wrong. As I write this now I’m struggling to remember what words of consolation she offered me. Sadly, this kind of middle-of the night summoning was hardly out of the ordinary. When I reflect on my childhood sleeplessness is one of my most prominent memories. Given to obsessive thinking and worrying, I always had trouble falling asleep. Thoughts about death were the usual culprits.

Once, when I was 7, my dad took my brother and me to the Natural History museum in Washington D.C. where we saw a special exhibit about mummies. One of the mummies was only two feet long, a baby mummy. I couldn’t’ sleep at night for a long time after that because I though the baby mummy was tucked under my covers at the foot of my bed, that terrifying expanse of space my tiny body couldn’t’ fill. I had seen another archeological exhibit featuring some kind of mausoleum from South America and this tortured me too. Every night for weeks my mother had to sit with me at bedtime for hours and hours trying to sooth me into sleep. What did she do to deserve such a morbid child?

“Mom, you’re going to die one day,” I wailed.
“Sweet heart that isn’t going to happen for a very, very long time.”
“But when you do die what am I going to do? Who will take care of me?”
“By then you’ll have your own children who will take care of you.”
“But dad’s going to die too.”
“Yes but that also won’t be for a long time. You don’t have to worry about it now.”
“And grandma and grandpa will die and all my friends are going to die and I’m going to die too! What happens when we die?”
“Abby, you can’t worry so much about all these things that are so far in the future. We have so much life to enjoy in the meantime.”
And then just when it seemed like I had calmed down:
“Mom, what’s going to happen to me when you die?”

And on and on and on.

Other horrific thoughts that kept me awake for months at a time: ships that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean full of treasure and corpses and barnacles, concentration camps and Nazis, toys I had lost and never recovered (not so much being bereft of them as the terror of being unable to account for their whereabouts). Add to this list now shaved, oiled women with foreign objects in their orifices and mean looks on their faces,

I don’t know why it hit me that hard but looking back on it that was a defining loss of innocence for me. I remembered thinking, even years later, that if someone offered me an unfathomable sum of money, a million dollars perhaps, on the condition that I would have to relive that anguish, I would never accept it.

Although the memory is distant now, out of duty to the hypersensitive girl I used to be I’d have to say I would not choose any differently today.

I’m not sure how to end this story without segueing into some debate about pornography. I think it goes without saying that I have since matured into a liberal, reasonably savvy adult (?) with a richer, more nuanced understanding of such a complex issue. At the tender age of 10 I didn’t know anything about sex-positive porn, or feminist porn, or the celebration of deviancy, or theory-laden discourses about inverting gaze. It was just traumatizing.