As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.

The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?

My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.

At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.

I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

The Inn

After two years of waiting tables in a shopping mall restaurant where clowns and kid’s nights featured heavily in branding, I got hired at a fancy country inn when I was about twenty-five.  At the last place, I learned to study a massive menu, where one cut of steak stalked the pages like a food private dick, turning up in different disguises everywhere one looked.  On page two, under a header that read ‘Southern Style’ in a zealous font, the fillet snuggled up with some mac and cheese and creamed peas, but it showed up again on page seven, wearing a lavish amount of teriyaki sauce and peering out from a forest of steamed broccoli that had somehow taken root on an unstable berm of dry pilaf.  At the inn, the card stock menu was newly printed each day – you could smear the ink if you weren’t careful.  It was a prix fixe menu, so lightly edited it only needed a glance when you got to work.  The one stumbling block was learning new words, most of which were French.

Thankfully the chef was generous enough to demonstrate as well as explain how things like his sauces were accomplished.  I grew up in a house where the fanciest foreign-sounding dish we made was Chicken a la King and even that stopped when the electric can opener broke and we couldn’t find the manual one.   Yet rather than feeling out of place in Jean Pierre’s kitchen, I felt like I had finally claimed a birth right.  Since childhood I was convinced I’d been kidnapped from Hollywood television icons Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, who I imagined were secretly a real-life couple.  No one would talk about my disappearance, but I knew they were out there, combing the streets of Beverly Hills, looking for their darling little Jonathan from the windows of a sleek powder blue convertible.   Across all the miles me and Mommie Babs had a connection that could not be broken.  She would have taught me about things like béchamel and velouté.  As I learned about French cuisine – or at lest enough to sell it at the table –  I was getting a taste of the childhood that was stolen from me by the same pair who would throw a paper towel at you to wipe away the orange grease of sloppy joes.

If I was getting a second chance at glamour with a ‘u’ in it, the inn was also getting a new life.  It had burned down under unexplained circumstances two years before I was hired, and countless dollars were spent to rebuild it.  As a matter of fact, finishing details were still being worked out in my first week there.  They sent us home with scorched linens form the fire for us to wash, just the kind of curious cheapness that I soon discovered was infecting the place.

The owner came from money; the back porch chatter was that her people were in diamonds.  The new incarnation of the inn was much grander than before, but due to tempestuous relations between the owner and the contractor, shoddy details turned up right and left. The handsome oak staircase terminated at a richly varnished plywood landing.   Much ado was made of the seven piece crown moldings, but no one ever got back around to grout the bathroom tiles.   The owner did a lot of talking about her designer cousin in Greenwich Village who she paid to do the bedrooms, but when the pink and purple coverlets started showing up, it looked strictly amateur. Even before I knew design, I knew this cousin was the family charity case.  One of those trust fund kids with a thin shop on Bleecker Street, his was the kind of place where a ‘back in ten’ sign perpetually hangs on the door.  Meanwhile he smokes cigarettes at the cafe across the street, loudly complaining to his best friend Leona – an aging dancer with good Vegas stories – about how no one understands his vision.

There was something about that job that felt a little wrong from day one.  Even though it was nice to learn some dishes I could order out with my blood mother, should we ever reunite, I found it hard to warm to the owner.  A thin little mouse with the gait of a marionette, Claudia had a habit of appearing at your shoulder, hands clasped before her, eyes probing you for misconduct.  I kept my head down in general and hoped she wouldn’t pop up as I mangled the pronunciations of the wines, my greatest weakness at table side.  Hoping to capitalize on the efficiency I had learned at the steak house, I threw myself into keeping the serving stations clean and filled, work that would have fallen to busboys if she’d funded the staff accounts more generously.  The headwaiter who hired me was a class act, seasoned in fine dining and more than capable of running the place without Claudia’s interference, yet even he seemed nervous when she was around.  With the chilly gaze of an outraged librarian, she was unsettling even when she tried to muster the occasional smile.

By contrast, her boyfriend was a human ox with a raspy laugh and a penchant for crass one liners.  Former military, he said, Stan’s every attempt to inspire camaraderie did often tempt me to go AWOL.  I think he wanted to show he was cool with myself and the headwaiter being gay when he made a joke one day about how nice guys always hold their ass cheeks open for sex.  Like the inn itself, big burly Stan was a class act.

I started at that place in the fall and made the trek across county through many snowy winter days to follow.  The shine of learning about fine food wore off by Valentine’s Day.  By then I had taken about as much of Claudia and Stan as I could and I was discovering that I missed the simplicity of the old steak house.  I made a lot more money waiting tables at the inn and had half the side work, but when I’d go back into the kitchen at my old job, there was always a new set of college kids, cutting up in the break room, making jokes as we rolled silverware wraps.  We laughed a lot and the management didn’t give a rats ass as long as we checked our tables every so often and never left food to die under the heat lamps.  The cooks were mean as hell if you didn’t get your food out quick, so the managers need not have worried.  More and more, I couldn’t stand the quiet-step skulking of Claudia, and I found that the pretty drive to the inn filled me with dread.

She seemed to bother other people, too, because two of the waitresses who started with me had left before Thanksgiving.  And shortly after Christmas, Jean Pierre quit, taking the kindness of his kitchen with him. Eschewing the gentle style of educating servers that the French man was so good at, the smirking sous chef who landed in his place instead posted admonishing notes and reminders all over the place.  One day, Claudia cornered me in the dining room before our first seating and said, “I need you to smile when we pass one another.”

“Okay,” I said.

When I finished my shift, I did my side work with perfect precision, determined that the last napkins I folded at that place should be picture worthy.  I folded my apron, shook a cigarette out of the pack in my coat, and paused for one last smoke on the kitchen porch.  The headwaiter stood beside me as we blew smoke into the cold, starry night.  When I said good night, I gave his arm a friendly squeeze and he cut his eyes at me quickly.

“You’re not coming back, are you?”

I shook my head, casting a glance through the kitchen door.  Now I realize I should have given him more notice, but he didn’t seem to mind that much.  He could have worked that dining room alone, he was so good, and I knew from a thousand sidewise glances how he felt about Claudia.  He patted me on the shoulder.

“Drive safe.”

The Algebra Novel

Every morning in seventh grade math class, I opened my blue Trapper Keeper and sat the tip of my pencil to a fresh sheet of paper.  When the teacher began the class, I mentally checked out, returning to the novel I was writing in my head.

It was good stuff, too, all about two southern bell sisters trying to keep the plantation from falling apart.  These poor girls had a lot on their plate.  Between dodging deserters and remaking old ball gowns, it was pretty amazing they still had time to fall in love with sturdy bucks like tight-lipped, sun-bronzed Rafe Hyatt.  And don’t get me started on their older, wicked lady neighbor, the raven-haired Rebecca de Chastaine.  Pretending to be their friend even as she plotted to ensnare their lovers, make no mistake, she was nothing but trouble. With this heady stuff to tend to between 9:55 and 10:55 each school day, it is no wonder I had to repeat math in summer school that year.

Writing this novel in math class was the highlight of my day and what helped me not to miss quite as much school that year.  Never mind the occasional humiliation of being called on by our teacher, Mr. Shaylock, and having no clue where we were in class.  With his short sleeve button ups and messy 70s weatherman hair, he was a gentle nerd who barely maintained his class, so perhaps he didn’t mind the plump daydreamer doodling Marie Antoinette wigs on the margins of his notebook.  At least I wasn’t one of the trouble-makers, pinching girls’ asses through the cutouts in the orange plastic chairs. That man put up with a lot, but I doubt he went home and poured himself a Scotch on my account.

I was a committed craftsman back then, never missing a date on my inkless writing.  I got good at winding up a chapter an hour and I got excited on the bus each morning, deciding where I’d begin again.  I also did the hard research, checking out books on historic costume from the library and faithfully teaching myself to draw them.  I could tell the era of a redingote at a glance, and was not above sniffing in disapproval when a movie of the week placed a ball gown on Jane Seymour when clearly she would have worn a modest day dress.  Returning those much loved volumes of renderings to the library again and again that year, I’m sure the one clearly homosexual volunteer behind the desk was smirking knowingly under his handlebar mustache.  Yet all my work could not save me from my report cards. I blame it on the Reagan era that I wasn’t tested on the anatomy of pantaloons instead of converting fractions.  The arts must always suffer.

At that time my biggest writing influences were Gone With the Wind and my sister’s library of smutty historic novels.  I always saw the past through a misty red veil, never stopping to think about all the pots of shit-water under the beds.  Instead, I was taken with the clothes, see above, and by the time I got to middle-school I liked the sex scenes, too.  The women who wrote novels such as ‘Destiny’s Seduction’ or ‘Island Rapture’ were giants in their field. As with all great literature, I was taken with the power of even their simplest phrases.  Describe our hero’s thighs as both hot and strong and I was right there with him in the crashing waves, deflowered but defiant as over his gleaming shoulders my ancestral mansion was burned by pirates.  Oh, the places you will go in a really fine work of fiction.

By mid-year I was bold enough to tinker with the sexual foibles of my own characters.  I knew before I knew that I was not a fit for the hetero world of those novels. Neither a swarthy English hunk raised by Arabs nor a voluptuous preacher’s daughter sold into sex slavery on the high seas, I hewed my burgeoning sexuality to the wicked, older lady neighbor.  With her as my proxy, I could place myself in that world – and experience the catty thrill of being the only woman in the county still rich enough to nail my dress at the Christmas ball.  Dove grey silk with cherry red piping – don’t get me started.

Of course, I abhor violence and any form of chicanery, but through this towering beauty, Rebecca de Chastaine, I wielded a terrible power.  When we set our cap for the rugged Yankee captain the McClure sisters were hiding in their smoke house, it took only a snap of her fingers to have him brought to us.  Of course, the problem was that once she’d tied him down and laid out her plans for him in a flowery monologue, it was me who had to stand up with a boner when the bell rang.  Thank heaven for that Trapper Keeper.