strange bedfellows

Did I see you walking with the boys, though it was not hand in hand? And was some black face in a lonely place when you could understand? 

Did she wake you up to tell you that it was only a change of plan? Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup with the promise of a man.

My first year in graduate school for my first master’s degree, I parted ways with my long-time roommate and moved in with complete strangers. I arrived at my new digs a little worse for the wear because of the circumstances under which my friend and I had divorced. Her drug-addicted boyfriend had made a pretty aggressive pass at me and then crawled uninvited into my bed while I was sleeping one weekend when she was out of town, and the truth of it made living together awkward to the point of untenable. We’d talked it over, but it was getting no better. We hated where we were living anyway, so we took the opportunity to get out of the lease and go our separate ways in an effort to try and get some breathing room and save the friendship. We valued each other greatly and thought constantly rubbing up against each other in that grubby little basement apartment was stunting the healing process. We decided to give the friendship some light and air, but I felt neither light nor airy. I felt dirty and cheated and used and, above all, sad. I did agree with the proposition in theory, though, and I definitely needed some space, so I signed a lease with strangers in a building that sat on a busy corner of Main Street just a few blocks from campus. I could walk to class and work and the bars, and I thought a fresh start might be what the doctor ordered.

So, I moved in with a guy and a girl I had never met before. The guy had lived in the apartment for a couple of years. Like me, the other girl was new; she was never around and not all that charming, though, so it really was just my male roommate and I occupying that second-story flat. The building was a friendly place. Not part of any complex, it had nine units — three on each floor — with patios that looked down onto the gravel parking lot and the intersection below. It was a bird’s eye view onto the hub of activity for our little college town, and the residents would often hang out on the balconies and greet each other coming and going or stand down on the sidewalk or shout up to each other to make plans for barbecues or happy hours. It wasn’t unusual to be reading or napping on your couch and hear your name yelled from below only to get up, grab your bag and run out the door to ladies’ night or dime drafts or karaoke only minutes later. And if you came home on Friday afternoon and found the big green trash can on your porch, that meant it was your apartment’s turn to buy the keg and host that Saturday night’s party. It was a good system. They were good people, and we all enjoyed each other immensely and took care of each other beautifully.

We had our own version of Lenny and Squiggy living directly below us. A sweet couple of guys who were like the Three Stooges minus one. They were inseparable, had a penchant for using the word “bozak” (they were from Long Island), and would suddenly appear your apartment ala Kramer any time they saw food of any kind going up the stairs. I learned fast to always cook or order enough for their appetites, too. Across the hall lived three girls who were always good for a night out, an afternoon of sledding down the hill at the elementary school behind our building, or the Chinese buffet on a Sunday. A good friend from high school lived upstairs. We belonged to the same fraternity. He and I had fallen into a brother/sister bond years before, and he doted on me. A charming and funny pretty boy alpha male with disarming good looks and a bad habit of sleeping around on his girlfriends, he was exceedingly loyal, protective, affectionate when it came to me. He craved my company more than I deserved, and I could always count on him to want to spend time together. We shared a “little sister” in the fraternity. We tooled around town and up and down the Valley in his Jeep with me ever riding shotgun. We coordinated Halloween costumes. We volunteered together. We had a regular date to fall asleep on his living room floor in front of the tv watching Law and Order in the dark together holding hands. Even today, I can picture his big, soft, tanned hands with their perfectly square nails — always impeccably clean and trimmed with smooth white moons and edges. I’m not sure what that was all about, but it was sweet and reassuring and very, very comfortable. It wasn’t something we discussed with each other, it just was. I would just go upstairs, let myself in, turn off the lights, and curl up next to him. Sometimes we’d move to his bed to sleep at some point in the night, but often we’d wake up still on the carpet in the middle of the night or early morning if I didn’t get up and stumble downstairs to my own apartment at some point.

The year before, I had arrived at the crummy seaside Panama City Beach motel my travel companions had booked for spring break already tired of the sight of them after 15 hours in the car together. I immediately discovered this friend of mine and his three buddies were in a room a few doors down, and at their suggestion, moved in with them for the week. It somehow seemed less “gay” to have me in bed with them, I suppose. While everyone else hit the clubs for body shots and wet t-shirt contests and hook ups, my friend and I spent mornings on the Gulf’s white sand together with the beach to ourselves, the afternoons at local seafood dives watching sports on the TV and drinking Miller Lites, and the evenings with activities like entering an oyster eating contest that involved me sucking them down out of the shells blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back (I came in second place) or making mac and cheese in a thin, dented up aluminum pot on our room’s barely functional stove to go with the fish his roommates caught during the day and grilled on the little abandoned hibachi we’d found in the alley. And playing Spades. Lots and lots of cutthroat Spades rife with lively smack talk.  We’d nap and watch soap operas and take turns reading the chapters of a Stephen King book to each other laying in the sun or in bed at night. It was comfortable and restful and in no way your typical college spring break, but it was everything we believed a beach vacation should be, and when I moved into the building the following year, all three men quickly absorbed me into their family. Sharing a shitty motel room for a week while surrounded by loud, drunk idiots has a way of doing that to people, but the boys never did anything short of pampering me. I was spoiled.

And then there was my roommate — a gentle boy with glasses and an impish grin, sparkling eyes, and a ubiquitous baseball cap covering his receding fine, blond hairline. He appeared shy upon first glance, but still waters ran deep and included a wicked sense of humor and a great deal of creative talent. He was soft-spoken by day but headed up a punk band by night. They weren’t a very popular band, but they shouted really loud and broke their instruments — which I helped to tape back together after gigs — so I guess they were punk enough to serve as an emotional outlet for him. He also shot video for the ROTC and would often spend long evenings in the edit bays on campus, where I would bring him bologna sandwiches for dinner.

We fell into easy step together pretty quickly without becoming too involved in each other’s day-to-day lives, but we were always happy to come home and stumble over one another for a chat over breakfast or a pizza and beers. A huge music fan, he turned me onto Ween and Green Day (the latter of which never stuck), and I played his Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains CDs over and over again at top volume until they broke. In return, I introduced him to Star Trek: The Next Generation in the waning weeks of the last season, and we glued ourselves to the couch under a blanket to dork out together for a weekend marathon the local UPN channel aired before the finale while living off of shrimp fried rice take out from Yee’s Place and Gus’ Taverna delivery gyros. I brought an old Nintendo NES back after Christmas break, and I would come home to find him playing Mario Brothers at all hours. Sometimes I’d fall asleep on the couch to find that he’d propped my legs up in his lap so he could sit there and play that damn game around me. We’d hit a rotation of townie bars on Sunday and Monday nights to hustle pool to help pay our rent. I’d lure in the mark and we’d sandbag them with my lousy play and his awkward nervousness, and then he’d eventually run the table and we’d grab the cash and shag ass for the door. It was a quiet, comfortable partnership that worked.

My roommate had one major drawback, however: he was a terrible slob. When I moved in he was already fighting to open the door to his little bedroom — the smallest in the apartment — due to all the stuff he had piled up in there. I was pretty sure his disgusting bathroom was starting to develop new diseases. Darling guy. Filthy mess. By spring semester, his junk was kicking him out of his bedroom, and he started to sleep on the couch. Worse yet, his dirty laundry was starting to pile up in the living room, as he’d just drop his trousers and step out, leaving them in a puddle in the middle of the floor. I’d kick them to the edges of the room, but they eventually started to stack up. It was nearly impossible to get seriously angry with him, as he was about as harmful as a baby bunny, but I was starting to get a little annoyed. Still, I tolerated it because I worked long hours at the campus catering operation and so was rarely home.

Also, he had grown up without a mother — raised by a single father who was a three-star general and a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite being an Army brat with his own military training, he had zero self-discipline when it came to anything for which he wasn’t passionate. Music and film? Sure. Chores? Forget it. The bachelor existence with which he’d grown up didn’t lend itself to a clean house either. His father was a dear man — sweet and gentle like his son — both of them a little broken from losing their wife and mother and not sure what to do or how to act around one another. When Dad came to visit, I was always included in their plans as an ad hoc sister of sorts — once again that warm, soft female buffer body in the middle that made it ok for men to be in a close space together without really having to be together. I greased the skids and did a little mothering of both quiet, lonely men.

Then came the night I rolled in the door from work around two a.m. and found my roommate in my bed. His shit had finally taken over the living room to the point where it was no longer habitable, and he had retreated to the last clean refuge in the house — my room. I was so exhausted from my day that I didn’t even turn on the lights, just peeled down to my panties and crawled into my bed to find that there was already a body warming it. I shrieked and hit the lights, sitting up in bed with the sheets clutched around me looking down at his drowsy, heavy lidded face struggling to the surface of consciousness.

“What the hell are you doing in my bed?!”

“I needed a place to sleep. The living room’s too dirty.”

“And who’s fault is that? Out. Get out.”

“Aw, come on. You have this big queen bed. There’s plenty of room for both of us. Come on. I’m tired. Let’s just go to sleep. I won’t bug you. I promise.”

“You snore.”

“Not too much.”

“*sigh* Fine. You can stay. But just for tonight. And I’m putting on a shirt. But tomorrow you’re cleaning up and starting to move back into your own bedroom — starting with the living room. Got it? This is ridiculous.”

“Sure, sure. *yawn* Sorry. I’m just…so…zzzzzzzz”

“Christ.”

I turned out the light and went to sleep. He was good on his word. He didn’t bug me and barely snored. He did not, however, start cleaning the house the next day. Or the day after. Or the day after that. A week went by, and the place was still a wreck. And he was still sharing my bed. I just didn’t have the heart to refuse him anything, and really, I couldn’t see the harm. The longer he slept there, the more normal it felt.

And then, about a week into this weird little arrangement of ours, I was out at the bar down the street with a couple of girlfriends, including my former roommate. It was an ok enough time. We were watching basketball and having some laughs, but I didn’t really have my heart in it. I was tired, and everyone was drunk, and I was getting sleepy. Sitting at the bar staring into my beer, I felt a presence sidle up next to me. I turned and found my roommate on the next bar stool smiling his little knowing, lopsided smile at me.

“You look beat.”

“I am.”

“Come on. Let’s go home and go to bed.”

He reached out his hand, and I took it. Held it the whole walk home, neither of us talking. Just enjoying being quiet together. When we got there, we both made for my bedroom like it was ours. Like that was the most natural thing in the world. We both stripped down — him to his cotton, blue-striped boxers that sat low on his hips below his ever-so-slightly soft belly accentuated by his meek little slouch, and me to my panties…no shirt. We crawled in under the covers, each taking our sides — his close to the window and mine close to the door — and turned onto our sides. He pulled up against my back and wrapped his arms around my waist, pressing his warm, hairless body the length of mine, heating up my chilled skin as he spooned me. I tucked the back of my head under his chin on the pillow. He kissed my hair, and we both drifted off into a peaceful slumber feeling very at ease. And that’s how we slept for the next few months — cuddling and clinging to each other like two survivors in a drifting lifeboat. There were no promises, no expectations. Sometimes one of us (usually me) didn’t come home at night. There would be no problems, no questions asked. We’d pass through my bed wordlessly like ships in the night, me often coming home in the middle of the night from work and crawling quietly under the covers, him silently up with the sun for ROTC without disturbing me, but we’d spend the few hours between midnight and dawn there together in a sort of suspended state that was separated from the world and the rest of our lives in it. As with my friend upstairs, we never talked about it. It was just who we were, what we did.

There were several reasons for what we were doing, why we each craved the comfort of warmth and physical contact — or even just someone else’s slow and steady breathing on the same mattress. He was a senior preparing to graduate and accept his commission into the Army — a commission he didn’t want and a career path he didn’t choose. He was looking at shipping off to Fort Gordon to join the Signal Corps and, like most kids that age, had no clue what he was doing or why. He was living his life to make his father happy, because so much about their lives together without his mother made his brokenhearted father unhappy. He wasn’t cut out for the military, and they both knew it, but it was something they could have in common. The only way those two lost souls could relate. He was terrified of his uncertain future, unsure of who he was, feeling bullied and alone, and, in the end, unmothered. As twisted as it sounds, sleeping with me was probably more out of desire for a maternal experience than anything else and the basis for our chaste cuddling.

For me, it was a form of recovery from what had happened in my last living situation. There was nothing aggressive about my roommate or his relationship with me. His affection was consistent, gentle, and dependable. It helped me heal from the feelings of betrayal and rejection I’d suffered and, along with my friend upstairs, let me regain some lost trust in men and physical contact with them. The wordless therapy of his soft, pink, unmarred youth made me feel loved and valued again — like I was worthy of safety and affection that didn’t make demands of me. It just gave without taking while welcoming whatever I could offer in return and never told me it wasn’t good enough. Never asked for more. It saw me and accepted me for who I was and loved me for it anyway. It also offered me a form of shelter in my own uncertain time, as I adjusted to the disorienting experience of being a graduate student at my undergraduate institution. While I considered leaving graduate school for law school. While I considered doing just that for another man I loved. While I weighed the possibility of losing myself in his needs against losing that man and choosing to live for myself without him. I faced my own turning point, and it terrified me. The moment of decision was coming fast, and it felt huge and unbearable. I didn’t have to think about it in bed with my roommate, though. I could curl up in his arms and nestle against his soft, smooth skin and hide in his body. We could both ignore the fact that we were both entertaining the possibility of living our lives for other people. We could both shut out the demands and pending commitments of adulthood and stay innocent children just a little longer wrapped around each other like that — a couple of needy, terrified 21 year-olds on the brink of their beginning lives alone at an age where relationships were so intense and the world felt ready to end at any moment. At an age filled with people and fears you outgrow and move on from and forget with age, but mean everything to you and define you at the time. At an age when you feel everything too damn much.

And then, one day at the end of the semester, I snapped. The pressures in my life came to a head for me, and I suddenly felt the need to exert some control. I needed breathing room and a clean psychic space — and so I turned my anger and frustration on my roommate’s mess in the apartment, some of which was edging its way into my room mainly in the form of shorts and boxers that he would strip out of to crawl into bed and leave wherever they dropped on the carpet. And that was part of the last straw. Either Lenny or Squiggy downstairs called him in his edit bay on campus and told him he needed to come home. He pulled into the parking lot and found me flinging his stuff out of the living room onto (and over) our little patio while yelling and muttering to myself. I must have made quite the sight for all of our neighbors with my little domestic scene. He came upstairs and tried to calm me, but the confrontation only escalated into a fight. I’d had enough — I needed my space in every way. I burned our unspoken sleeping arrangement to the ground, packed up and stormed out the door to work. I spent the night on the sofa in the office and didn’t go home until the next evening when I walked through the door to the shock of my life. My roommate had spent the entire weekend cleaning the apartment from top to bottom. Not only were all of his things cleared out of my room and the joint living space, but he’d cleaned up his room and bathroom, too. He’d scrubbed everything down and had a homemade meal and flowers waiting for me. I walked in the door late from a long two days of work — exhausted and sweaty and greasy in my smelly purple polo shirt and filthy khakis — and burst into tears when greeted with that scene. He came over to me at the door, took my bag from my shoulder, hugged me and led me over to the dining room table where he pulled out a chair in front of a plate and guided me into it. Neither of us ever said we were sorry. We didn’t have to. As always, we communicated without speaking. All was fixed. All was forgiven.

That night, he went to sleep in his room, and I went to sleep alone in mine. We never shared a bed again and we never discussed it. We were over. Cold turkey. I was a little sad about it, but mostly I felt liberated, free to move forward. It was time to quit hiding and delaying. As queer and counter-intuitive as it sounds, my relationship with him was probably the healthiest, most nurturing and honest I’ve ever had. Sad, huh? Nonetheless, it was time to put the comfort of my roommate’s body, his presence in bed next to me, behind me and take action — time to step out and do what was scary. I was ready to face adulthood and all its rewards and disappointments on my own. And he had to do the same. It was time for us both to grow up.

I tell this story now, because I’m going through something similar. Only this time, I’m alone, and I’m the slob. For the past several weeks, I have done a terrible job of coping with what is happening with my Mom. The news that she’s in heart failure has completely thrown me for a loop. I’m not dealing. My house is a mess. Not as bad as anything my college roommate created, but the worst I’ve ever let it get. The disorder is epic by my standards. I’ve shut myself in and shut myself away from my friends. I’ve been completely anti-social. My diet is crap. If I eat at all — and I often go days without doing so, mostly because my gut rejects everything I put in it — it’s nothing good. My fridge is empty. I ran out of toilet paper and dog food earlier this week. It’s unsurprising for me to wear the same dress two or three days in a row. When I run out of clean underpants, I just don’t wear any. I’m not getting any work done, which only increases my stress and anxiety, because deadlines don’t move, and the work only piles up. Balls are getting dropped, and payment is going to come due soon.

The strangest part of all of this is how my sleeping habits have changed. For some reason, I moved out of my bed and started sleeping in the guest room a few weeks ago. I thought it was just that I decided to sleep in the sheets my brother spent one night on in a good faith effort to make them really worth washing in advance of my next guest. At least, that’s what I told myself at first. But little by little, I completely abandoned my bedroom. I moved my water bottle and the two prescriptions I need in the mornings over to the desk next to the guest room bed. I started moving some clothes over to the dresser in there, too. I let my pets take over the big queen bed in the master bedroom while baskets and piles of clean and dirty laundry took over the floor. The dog freaked out during a thunderstorm and broke the blinds in my room two weeks ago.  I just retracted them up halfway to disguise the damage from passersby on my street and pulled the curtains shut to hide it a little from the inside of the house. I have made no move to replace the blinds…or the torn curtains. He crushed the little wicker wastepaper basket in there, too. I let it lay there in pieces for a few days before I took it to the dumpster. There are still balled up pieces of Kleenex from the destroyed basket scattered in the corner in there. I haven’t bought a new basket. A cat threw up on the carpet a week ago, and I only cleaned it up yesterday. You would think the room belonged to Miss Havisham or was part of an abandoned house, falling further and further into chaos every day. No longer resembling the sunny, well-decorated, cherished sanctuary and refuge of rest it once was to me.

Instead, I’ve moved into my smaller, darker, but very comfortable guest room that, while warm and welcoming with its rich green walls, touches of bright red and yellow, shelves of books, and a definite decor theme, is largely devoid of personal touches. It’s not lived-in by design. It’s made to be a cleaner slate for my guests. Perhaps that’s what I like about it. Or the fact that its western exposure means the sun doesn’t reach it until well after noon, and even then, the heavy curtains shut out the light. Or the fact that it faces my quiet backyard, so the only in there to disturb me is the muffled white noise of the ceiling fan. Or the fact that it doesn’t have an alarm clock. Or the fact that the very comfortable pillow-top mattress is only a full, rather than a queen, and thus the smaller bed feels snugger and less empty. While I do not have another body in it to wrap around and comfort me, I take comfort in the fact that the edges are never too far. I’m not lost in the open expanse. I can hunker down, sink in, and let the layers of cozy covers hug around me. Being in my guest room is like being a guest in my own house. I’m on vacation from reality in there, and I cannot wait to go there and close the door (something I never do in my own room) every night. Waking up in there means waking up in a strange place away from my routine, and I’m able to stave off the real world just a little longer. It’s bad enough that I wake up with anxiety attacks at four a.m., at least I can shut myself away from what waits beyond that door and pretend I’m somewhere else for a little longer before I get out of bed each day. I just turned 40 a week ago, and here I am acting like a scared little girl again when I’ve known how to work without a net for years now.

Something’s gotta give, though, and so something has. Just like with my roommate, I suddenly and inexplicably snapped when I woke up this morning. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Sick of victimizing myself over this. No one cares if I’m broken. No one has the patience for that, least of all me. It’s time for me to suck it up, get my shit together, clean up my mess, and start being myself again. I’m done being dazed and scared and a little crazy. I’m ready to be strong and powerful and organized and effective again. I used to be a badass — the height of competences and capability, but lately — everyone’s looking at me like I’m fragile, like I’m made of spun glass and might break any minute. And they might be right. I’m tired of hearing people tell me they’re worried about me. I’m good in a crisis and a force to be reckoned with — the one people wait to show up, take charge, and start fixing things — and it’s time for me to be that woman again. Time to support my family. Time to help my Mom find the way she’s going to live with her heart instead of die from it. Time to get up off the floor and fucking fight back.

And so, the fridge is again stocked with fruit and cheese and veggies. A couple of salads are made, and the chicken I’ll roast for dinner is thawing in the sink. The animals are walked and sleeping on a clean pet bed on the living room floor again. My clothes are washed and put away. I’ve got new curtains for the master bedroom just waiting to be ironed and hung. The bedding from both beds is in the laundry, and I will sleep in my own room tonight. The guest room will go back to being ready for my guests while I live in my own home. I’m throwing things away left and right — ruthlessly so — cleaning as I go. And when I’m done, I’ll run some errands, hit the pool for a mile or so of laps, and spend the evening preparing my presentation for this weekend’s conference.

I’m done fucking around. Just like I broke the spell with my roommate and chucked his mess off of the porch all those years ago, I’m chucking out my own physical and emotional clutter now. There is no one here to hug me and hold me at night and let me pretend everything’s ok. I had my last romance with that illusory safety net almost almost 20 years ago, and while those boys were lovely, I’ve long since outgrown them. The only one who can fix this is me, so I’d better get started.

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sour girl

She was a happy girl when she left me.

I dream vividly. It runs in the family. My paternal grandmother was an avid dream journaler her entire adult life. She always kept a notebook next to her bed, and she would wake from her dreams and roll over in the night and immediately write them down when they ended. I used to love to read her scribbles. I wish I’d pocketed one of her notebooks when we packed up her place in Chicago. I found similar notes in my Dad’s papers after he died, too. Scraps of paper mixed in with his bills and other effects. He’d journal in prose. It was amazing.

Grandma was also a lucid dreamer, a skill she taught both my father and me. I havent been using it for the past year or so, though, either out of sudden onset impotence or choice. I think I am electing to check my free will at the door when I punch my card at night lately. My brain works all day. Why work while I slumber, too? Then again, I seem to be the Sandman’s bitch these days, so the illusion of any control would be a laughable prospect anyway. When I do dream, though, they’re doozies, and the dreams that stay with me all day are truly annoying.

Last night’s was a winner. It seemed to last all night. I was attending a friend’s wedding, only it wasn’t her as I know her now, it was the college version of her. Or as I would imagine her in college, as we didn’t go to school together, and I didn’t know her then. The odd thing is that the action took place in the early 90s — my college years, not hers. She’s younger than I am. I pulled her into my timeline. So, really, it was the college version of me. Or the early grad school version, to be more specific. If you really want to split hairs, it was 1994. The year I lived in that apartment on the second floor on the corner of Main and Port Republic with Mike. The year we went to the bars every night and hustled pool to pay our rent and had music playing in the background constantly. The year that he was still there. The year I didn’t get on the plane to meet him in Greece.

The dream was beautifully lit. Sunset cinematography that gave it a mood of magical realism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez in deep golds, bronzes, and purples. Seemed fitting to me for many reasons, all of them my own. My friend’s wedding was elaborate. We’re talking Kardashian expensive, only classy. The ceremony itself was religious and someplace huge that was most definitely not a church. I never saw that part. I was there. I looked right at it. I just didn’t see it. None of this fit my friend. Her family is not wealthy. She is not religious, and certainly not Christian. And even if she could afford a big, elaborate wedding, it would be the last thing she would ever want. In fact, she had a very simple civil ceremony when she did marry in real life. A marriage I either admire tremendously or that makes me utterly sad. I haven’t decided which. I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest.

After the ceremony, I noticed a huge sign on the wall reminding the guests that they were to have RSVP’d separately to the reception at her parents’ stately mansion by a specific date. As I stood there reading it, I realized I had failed to follow those instructions because I never received them. The bride walked by and asked me what was wrong. I told her. She smiled and said, “No worries. What’s another $100 plate of food for my parents? Come on.” And then she took my hand, which is weird, because we never touch. This stands out, because my friends and I are usually very physically affectionate with one another, but when she touched me in the dream, I realized tht I couldn’t remember a single instance of her flesh ever touching mine. It didn’t feel comfortable in the dream. It was cold and hard and threatening, and I wanted to flinch and pull my hand out of hers immediately, but she held me tight, her silvery wedding gown shining in the sunset. The sun reflected from her dress into my eyes, blinding me. At that same moment, another friend appeared — this one definitely too young to be at university with me in 1994. Oddly enough, both of them are related to the same place and period in my life, but have never met. Friend #2 lurched up out of the darkeness of the pew behind me, and grabbed my other hand. She begged me not to go, tried to pull me down into the pew with her. This friend has never been married — never had a relationship of any kind — and seemed desperate to keep me from following the bride. I remember thinking that neither woman belonged there in 1994 with me. I remember thinking that it was a bad sign. I remember wondering how I knew what year it was. I remember thinking that neither woman had an agenda in my best interest.

I don’t know if I let go of my second friend’s hand or if the bride won the tug-of-war, but the next thing I know, I’m climbing up a long, wide, winding stone staircase with her. When we reached the top, the reception was spread out over a huge, sweeping terrace on a mountainside in front of a large, modern glass house overlooking the Tuscan countryside below. The bride handed me a flute of champagne but never let go of my hand. She was no longer my friend. She was The Bride, and she had me in a vice grip. It was sinister. We stood there watching the sun set. At that point, I looked down and realized I wasn’t wearing anything, which didn’t bother me so much as confused me. It was at that point, that The Bride said, “so glad you could come,” and violently pushed me over the terrace railing and off the cliff below.

When I landed, I was on a city street in front of a theater box office at night. My left side was killing me, but I didn’t seem to be injured or bleeding. The girl in the booth was glad to see me and said that “they” were all waiting for me inside. She printed out a discounted ticket and explained that she wasn’t charging me full price because the show had already started without me. I walked through the doors to an enormous red theater with the seats filled to sold-out capacity with people I know. Hundreds of people from all parts of my life. Stone Temple Pilot’s “Sour Girl” blared overhead. I couldn’t tell where the music was coming from. It was just everywhere. I looked down and found myself wrapped in a white cotton bed sheet. It was wound around me tight like a shroud and tucked under my arms. I was still naked beneath it. Halfway down the aisle, there he stood in a tuxedo with a red rose in his lapel. His dark hair slicked back from his handsome face. He hadn’t aged a day, and neither had I. At that moment, I realized that I was at my own wedding. That had been the point of the whole dream. The tug-of-war, the climb, the push from the cliff. He smiled at me and reached his hand out for mine. I was wrapped too tight in the sheet and couldn’t move. Didn’t want to. Was too terrified.

And then I woke up.

I haven’t been able to shake the images and the feeling of the dream all day. Haven’t been able to shake “Sour Girl” from my head, either. In an effort to exorcise it from my brain, I logged onto Spotify to listen to it and found, to my surprise, that I’d already done so in the night. I had added it and a plethora of other favorite Grunge hits to my playlist somwhere around 4am. I had been busy building a 90s nostalgia soundtrack in my sleep. I have no idea why. I have no idea where any of this comes from. I have no idea what this means. Probably nothing. I have no point. No punchy ending. This is just a dream journal. I just want to wake up.

hey nineteen

Yes, it's a freaking phone. Trust me on this.

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old.

Despite its reputation for having such a marked gender imbalance that it’s often called “Menver,” I spend more time with women than men in this town as of late. Well, truth be told, I don’t spend much time with anyone human, given my academic demands and the solitary work at hand. It’s an event when I put down the laptop and books and step outside to do anything other than walk the dog. When I am with people these days, I tend to be with one of two women in my social circle who are also in school, and therefore have similar schedules while simultaneously being able to relate to my own experience and time restrictions. Misery loves company and all that rot, only we’re really not all that miserable. It works out pretty well, actually, and it helps that they’re a couple of really funny bitches who share my quirky view of what is wrong and right in the world. The interesting part is that both women are old enough to be my daughters, which is weird to say, because, really, I’m not that old. Not even close. Honest.

Shut up. Stop laughing.

….

One of these friends is in her early 20’s, but has the comportment, maturity, and gravity that I have to say far exceeds my own. She blows me away daily. The other is firmly ensconced in her mid-20’s and has the blazing intellect and vision, biting wit, and sophisticated sense of humor I love coupled with an easy-going and self-aware goofiness that outpaces anything I have. And I’m a freaking goofball. It helps that I refuse to grow up in all the ways that are important. I’m no 20-something, but I remember what it feels like to be young and love to laugh.

Both women are very comfortable in their own skin, know what they want from life, and have the ambition, drive and smarts to give as good as they get. They’re fighters, they’re hard workers, they’re wicked hilarious, and they’re very well-schooled for ones so young. They’re wise beyond their years, and I’m truly impressed with both of them. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all. They’re two of my favorite people in the world, and I love that the age difference seems to be a non-issue for us. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t notice it, and they don’t seem to, either. From my point of view, we have a relationship of equals, despite the fact that they are just finding themselves and stepping out into a world that is their oyster, while I’m setting foot into my own middle ages and looking over the rise at the downward slope in the road. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I have just so been enjoying their company, that I really had myself fooled into thinking there were no differences in our experience. This week, however, the universe body checked me repeatedly with reminders from these friends and my students that I’ve been around a lot longer than I sometimes realize.

Nothing says, “damn, bitch, you old” quite like getting the blank stare of nonrecognition from a younger person in response to a pop culture reference that you’re sure everyone in the room will connect with thanks to a collective memory. The silence that meet the words and terms and jokes and phrases that drop from your mouth with such natural ease is deafening and time stretches out before you like hours as you realize the decades that actually separate you from your listener. I imagine it’s how a comedian dying on stage must feel.  You don’t want to follow up with condescension, but you want to explain your reference in the hope that maybe the issue is one of miscommunication on your part and not the fact that your dinner companion just was not alive or, gee, I don’t know, not yet potty trained, when whatever event, show, song, presidential debate, etc. you just mentioned happened along.

In the past week, I have been met with the blinking look that says “Uh…huh?” in my efforts to engage on Benny Hill, Deep Throat (yes, including the Watergate version), and at least one other major pop culture moment from the 90s that everyone my age would expect everyone in the industrialized West to recognize, but that I can’t remember right now because, well, the kids are right and this bitch is apparently actually old fo’ reals. Despite wracking my brain, I cannot recall what it was. I think it was something from Seinfeld or another television show that was equally huge and momentous. Trust me, it was shocking. I had every reason to gasp at the blank stare I got — at least from a Gen X point of view. These reminders where like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on me from above, and the water was only made icier by the fact that my hike and brunch today with a 35 year-old girlfriend was a series of each one of us easily and effortlessly picking up what the other was laying down as far as references went. Our quotes varied from Ivan Drago to Dr. Peter Venkman without missing a beat. It was pretty delicious. A conversation like that is on par with good sex with a long-term intimate partner even when it’s with someone you just met. Hell, like really hot sex, sometimes it’s even better with a stranger. But anyway…

Ok, so maybe my generation lives in the 80s, but we know a good pull when we see one and rarely miss an opportunity to jump in and make one. The pop cultural tete-a-tete is a rush for all of us and can often parade as instant intimacy. And that’s just the thing. Therein lies the defining difference between my generation and the one who came after. Generation X makes its meaning in being referential. It’s how we communicate with each other. It’s how we form our own self-identities. Everything boils down to shared experience. In the words of Blackalicious’ Gen X anthem Make You Feel That Way, “Rakim? KRS? Hey, I had that tape.” We all seek that recognition from one another. It’s our secret handshake. The fact that my friend can drop a line from Rocky IV and I can reply with another from Ghostbusters and be understood without so much of a blink of an eye is the essence of the Gen X experience. It’s what we’re all looking for from each other, and it serves not only as a bonding ritual for each of us as we sniff each other as we each seek to build relationships with adults whose wheelhouses are similar to our own, but it grounds us in an era that has seen more rapid technological, social, cultural, political, and economic change than any in nearly a century. It helps to have a touchstone when you’re screaming through the universe at a million miles an hour. Pop culture is how we cope.

Granted, Generation X did not invent the importance of pop culture references or shared experience. Our Boomer parents most certainly defined the concept of  lived generational identity as is captured with comedy and poignancy in the 1989 film Parenthood when Diane Wiest’s character Helen is shocked to learn that her teenage daughter is pregnant upon returning home from a date with her younger son’s teacher, George Bowman:

Helen: No, no, no, no. I’m too young to be a grandmother. Grandmothers are old. They bake, and they sew, and they tell you stories about the Depression. I was at Woodstock, for Christ’s sake! I peed in a field! I hung on to The Who’s helicopter as it flew away!
George Bowman: I was at Woodstock.
Helen: Oh yeah? I thought you looked familiar!

If you haven’t seen Parenthood, put this blog down and go watch it now, so we can all continue on the same page. No, not later. Right now. It’s important. I’ll wait right here.

All done? Ok. Good. Let’s continue.

To be fair to my Millennial friends, it is not their fault. They just were not there. Why would they get all of my jokes? Why would I expect them to have been there when they weren’t born yet? They’re still young. It’s their world now, and they’re still writing the script. They’ve got their own culture. I just get that reality check from time to time, and I see the humor in their eyes and imagine the horror in my own whenever the gulf opens and I get a reminder of my age and experience. I don’t hate it, though. I revel in my place in life and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I just can’t expect to have everyone speak the same language. If Saussure is right, our language is based on the relationship between the signifiers we chose to create our signs — and references should be no different. Barthes would argue that it’s all part of our myth building processes, and Gen X gets off on the myths.

I have to give the Millenials in my life credit, though. They try very hard to understand me and where I’m coming from, in fact. They’re eager to learn, in fact. Some of them even seem to worship our references and use them as the basis for their humor. Talk to any Family Guy fan in his or her 20s, and you’ll see what I mean. That show is wall-to-wall Gen X pop culture references, thanks to the masturbatory writing style of its creator Seth McFarlane, and the Millennials just eat it up. They are craving a shared experience that their generation has been denied through the individualizing and niche-ifying media and technology of their youth. They’d trade their iPods for what I have in a heartbeat, and in my experience, many of them are dying to rub up against me. Want to understand what I have and maybe even get a little of it for themselves. It’s why my past classes almost invariably included a discussion about what a rotary phone was and how it worked and what it was like to use one whenever the image of one came up in a documentary I showed in class. The conversation goes from rotary phones to television with dials to what it was like to drink Coke out of a glass bottle (it’s like drinking beer out of a glass bottle). It’s why screening this to put this into proper pop culture and historical context always lead to a class discussion that caused my students to want to discuss it and other references like it for a week in my office, on my AIM chat, via email, and anywhere else they could find me because they had always laughed at the latter without ever having seen and understood the former. Getting the whole story changed them, and I appreciated that. They wanted to learn. Wanted to learn. Wanted to soak it all up. Most importantly, they wanted to use and apply the myths. That’s been a lesson for me, too.

The lesson is that bullshit debates like this are useless wastes of time that don’t get us anywhere, except to get me pissed off. Generational infighting seems to be a new thing, and it’s stupid. It’s a lesson that makes me consider who I am and who my friends are and how we can better communicate. It serves to drive my research. It also causes me to laugh at myself when I realize that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that’s ok. I’ve got my Millennial friends to help keep me on my toes and to help keep me from growing old without a fight. And every time some 20-something asks about my research and replies with “Generation X? Why would you want to study those old folks?” because she thinks I’m one of her tribe, I take it as a compliment, despite my own fervent generational pride . Thank you, 28 year-old. Thank  you.

she’s a very freaky girl

A tale wherein the students have become the teachers…or at least my teachers.

Words cannot describe how good it feels to be back in the classroom. Everything about this semester is clicking along like a well-oiled machine and has me walking on a cloud because I’m so happy and in love with my research and everything else I’m doing, but teaching again is by far the best part. I honest to God stroll around with this smitten look and stupid smile plastered on my face like I’ve got some kind of crazy schoolgirl crush going on because it just feels so damn euphoric to be doing what I am meant to do. It’s true what they say — if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life (even though I’m working my ass off here). And the difference clearly shows. I have friends and even strangers commenting left and right that I glow. My hair, my skin, my clothes, my everything apparently looks better. I’ve been asked if I’m in love or pregnant more than once this week alone.

I am serving as a TA in preparation to take on my own courses as a GPTI next semester. It was my adviser’s idea to fight for me to be placed under her supervision so that I didn’t have to start at zero doing recitations for the 1001 class. I appreciate that she recognizes my level of experience and doesn’t want to see me set back and bored when I’ve taught lecture classes of 250+ students at a one of the largest research universities in the country in the past. She wants to make use of my talents and hone them. I am anxious to be fully at the reins again, and she made it clear in our meeting today that she’s going to get me back there as quickly as possible. I’m taking over writing the quizzes and tests for the class and will start doing a good bulk of the lecturing, too. I can tell that she’d hand it all over to me, if she could. She has such tremendous faith in me and is as eager to mentor me as I am to learn. She has much to teach me. We’re an amazing team, and our already-good relationship has rocketed to a new level in the past week. She’s caring, supportive, challenging, and a good boss and friend. She trusts me, and she gives a damn. Her tutelage combined with that from past mentors and my basic God-given gifts of instruction will make me freaking unstoppable by the time I’m doing interviews. It’s perfect. I’m high on it.

The best part is our students. We have a class of 40 upperclassmen. Some have taken classes with my adviser before. She has groupies, and with good reason. I’m one myself. She knows how to structure a good course, and she’s amazing in front of the classroom. The room is an odd, open, long meeting hall in a building that’s used for advising more than classes, and everyone sits at a long rectangle cobbled together from several tables that takes up the entire room. The class is overbooked, and there are more students than the room can actually hold, so there are a few kids sitting in corners and in chairs along the walls. They don’t care, they just want to be in the class. It’s kind of sweet, actually, and it should have tipped me off to their level of enthusiasm about and involvement with the content of the course.

Thursday was my first chance to really see the students in action as part of a discussion. Prior to this point, we had just had class business and lecture. This afternoon we really got down to business, though, and wow. Goddamn. I was impressed.

While there was certainly a minority that sat there slack-jawed like deer in the headlights because they either hadn’t done the reading on the sexualization of popular culture or because their minds were blown and groins made uneasy by the explicit music videos we were all sitting in the dark watching together. Their chairs were pretty close together, so it’s not like they had much in the way of personal space as we watched Madonna play the dominatrix, Nelly slide a credit card down the crack of a stripper’s g-stringed ass, or Katie Perry clumsily ape and fumble her way through the cartoonish and wide-eyed part-time bisexual slut role in her offering. I felt particularly bad for the poor sophomore guy who had to share a little table in the corner with me. My proximity clearly made him a little uncomfortable, and he had a hard time sitting still. Nonetheless, he was nice about it, and I tried to give him a little room to shift around in his seat.

The majority of the class was right there with it, though, sitting on the edge of their seats, soaking it all in, keeping pace intellectually and applying what they’d read in the week’s assignments and elsewhere to the text and subtext of what we put before them. Practically salivating at the thought of self-expression, they could barely wait for each video to finish before they jumped right in with their sharp analysis. They weren’t very nice to Katy Perry when they did it, either. As much as I’m not a fan, I almost felt sorry for her as I listened to these 19 and 20 year-olds rip her performance and general pop persona to shreds. I won’t lie, though. Inwardly, I was fist pumping with satisfaction in the knowledge that these kids had two brain cells to rub together hard enough to create enough friction to generate some real heat. It was a truly lovely surprise coming off of my experience in the graduate version of this course last semester with a cadre of master’s students whose heads projected ocean sounds to those standing too close to them on a mildly breezy day. They led me to wrongly underestimate the undergraduates.

The best part were the young women in the room. They easily outnumbered the guys 4 or 5 to 1. Add two female instructors to the mix, and you’ve got a regular estrogen brigade on your hands. While there are certainly some girls who looked overwhelmed by the subject matter, the vast majority of them attacked the discussion with gusto and slid right into the driver’s seat of the class. They came prepared, not only from the assigned class readings, but from their accumulated knowledge from their other courses and just general keen life observation. It was inspiring. They were bold and fearless with their academic analysis of the videos we watched, but even moreso, their grasp of sexuality and sexual politics was really sophisticated for their age. Some of the men were right in there with them and had astute and clever things to say, but the majority of them appeared to be more intimidated and out of their depth than the women and needed to have a picture drawn for them on concepts like BDSM and dominatrices. Sexual experience and exploration were clearly in their futures more than their pasts. The women, on the other hand, were right there to do the explaining.  They also had amazing contributions to offer on strippers’ agency, straight female performances of bisexuality and homoeroticism, and the historical context of sexual controversy in the media its resultant censorship.

The part that really blew my mind and schooled me was the students’ (both male and female) feminist approach to the discussion. They were unafraid and unembarrassed to have frank discussions of sexuality, and the women were not shy about sharing what they knew on the topic — even when it came to concepts that might be considered perverse, non-heteronormative, and not appropriate for public discussion. They weren’t scared to be “freaky.” They are so firmly ensconced in third wave feminism and its constant insistence that all things are relative, that the battle is to be fought where you find it, and that compromise is an acceptable option. They do not see the world as a place where they are oppressed at all or that they should be personally offended by anything. The term “sex positive” was used over and over again as a measure of the media, particularly with relation to women’s agency in the examples we watched. Their take on everything was so firmly in contrast to my own second wave- and postfeminst-influenced ideals, that it really made me sit up and take notice. They were able to justify and rationalize and find upsides to things I couldn’t and didn’t see before.

I cannot say I agreed with everything they said, but I cannot say they did not make me think. The third wave feminist is a force to be reckoned with and a puzzle to be solved for the Gen Xer. My eyes are opened, and now I see things I’ve seen a million times in a new light. I am humbled and view my students with a new depth of respect, too. I couldn’t help but think, “Right on, sister” more than once as they contributed to the conversation. This is not only helpful for my research on the intersection of generational identity and the media, but also will improve my skills as a teacher by reinvigorating and challenging my approach to pedagogy with this group and others to come. I have work to do when it comes to negotiating the waters of the third wave and reckoning with the brave women it. They will push my envelope with their openness and unabashed willingness to share…everything. There is a gap to bridge, and I can see I will learn a lot from my students this semester. For that, I am already grateful.