This is 39: Day One

Today I turned 39.

If you slide your hand up the outside of my right leg, you will feel her-a deep, pulsating river zig-zagging against your palm. She breathes like a thunderstorm. She fades against the autumn air.

This is 39.

I have begun shoving things in my bra. Tissues, my cell phone, my writing notebook. Things are safe there, resting against the thump of my heart. I have no pockets.

This is 39.

My hair dying is now a necessity. Blood red dye against the white porcelain of my claw-foot tub reminds me of watching Psycho with my grandmother. Janet Leigh seemed so old to me then. She was an adult.

This is 39.

On Tuesday I moved a couch, a chaise lounge, a coffee table, a 10×10 rug, and then I moved them all back again. On Wednesday I saw my chiropractor and iced my shoulder.

This is 39.

I tell rude boys and mean girls to fuck off with ease.

This is 39.

On Friday nights I go to bed with Bill Maher and always fall asleep before New Rules.

This is 39.

I still make promises to myself, still feel there is ground to cover, choices to be made, journeys on which to embark. I still look to the stars with awe.

This is 39.

 

The Book Inside of You

I was on a debut author’s panel over the weekend at the fabulous Hippocamp to discuss my memoir, Fat Girl, Skinny.  If you haven’t heard of Hippocampus Magazine, I suggest you check them out, it is a brilliant pub and the conference they hold each year is wonderfully inspiring. Anyway, the panel I was on was one in which myself and four other authors each described our road to publication.

The audience was eagerly awaiting our answers. They asked great questions and I hope we satisfied them with our responses. However, now that I have a few days distance and more than ten seconds to respond, I’d like to answer two of the questions I was asked a bit more thoroughly.

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Here I am (left) with two amazing authors: Jamie Brickhouse (Dangerous When Wet) and Laurie Jean Cannady (Crave: Sojourn of a Soul) 

First, I was asked how I knew I had a book in me. The answer I gave was truthful. I had always written poetry, and when asked to write a short creative nonfiction piece for one of my graduate classes, I fell in love. My poetry has always been so confessional that expanding that same voice out to a longer narrative felt good actually. It was like allowing my memory to stretch its legs. I also liked writing with a dash of humor. I tend to be the person always looking to make a joke in real life, so again, putting that on the page felt natural.

But on a more serious note, I didn’t know I had a book in me for a long time. You see, I was married young and it didn’t go well. I married into comfort because I was fat and ashamed and my self-confidence was in the toilet. I married the boy who accepted me, instead of a boy who loved me. When the marriage finally disintegrated, as we knew it would, I knew I had to do something about my weight or I would fall back into the same bad habits. So, I joined Weight Watchers, lost some weight, and started to feel good about myself and the life I began to shape. That’s it. I never thought that story was anything extraordinary, I mean, this happens to a lot of us right? My friends and I call it the divorce diet. I just started writing about it, and decided to be grossly honest. And that, is where my story sprung from: truth.

Writing a memoir doesn’t always take an extraordinary story. It takes extraordinary honesty. People don’t always read memoir to discover the great feats you’ve accomplished, they read memoir because they’re looking for some part of themselves in your story. They look for that recognition, the universal truth that connects the memoirist and their reader. I didn’t know I had a story in me until I started to read my pieces in front of people, until I met men and women who approached me after readings to say “That happened to me,” or “I’ve struggled with weight my whole life, I can relate.” It wasn’t until I started realizing the universality of my seemingly ordinary story, that I realized its power lay in accessibility. Which brings me to the second question.

I was also asked about feedback I’ve received. I talked a little bit about the feedback I find most rewarding, and that is from young men and women who have shared with me their weight-related stories. But I wanted to share an example with you. This came in late last night, and it brought me to tears when I read it.

From an Amazon reader:

I would recommend this book to anyone who’s struggled with their weight, or an addiction. I think this is a story that so many people can relate to on multiple levels.

I went from anorexia, to bulimia in my life. I would read stories of eating disorders, and instead of marveling at how they recovered, I’d wonder if I could make what they used to get so emaciated, would work for me. This is the first book, having to do with eating disorders, that made me want to work for the weight loss, instead of doing something extreme and dangerous while hoping for immediate results.

I can’t praise this book enough, nor Amye, for laying it all out there for us, allowing the rest of us to have hope.

This review means the world to me. To think that my story, my vulnerabilities, may have helped someone is overwhelming. This is the feedback that keeps me writing, that makes every rejection (and there were A LOT of them), every edit, every revision, and every tear shed, worth it. It’s comments like this that remind me of one simple truth: everyone has a story to be told, because everyone has a life they’ve lived. It doesn’t have to be exciting, it has to be true.

Thank you to those reviewers who let authors know that a book has moved you. And thank you to everyone at Hippocamp, especially Donna Talarico-Beerman, Hippocampus Magazine’s creator. You’ve created a culture of acceptance and inspiration that I’m confident will grow and nurture writers for many years to come.

 

 

Cigarettes, Lipstick, and Cobain

I fell in love with you on a kitchen floor after my junior prom. You wore a loose tie with your red chucks. I wore a size 12 black and white dress that hour-glassed my expanding body into something more desirable. You couldn’t keep your hands off of me. That night became the night against which my beauty would always be measured. Remember how beautiful you looked in that dress on that night? You would ask me when you remembered it. It was as if that version of me-young, beautiful, thin, and sexy-was an island I could never again reach, not by swim, by boat, by rocketship.

We went with another couple, rented a limousine, sat at a table, ate a meal, and danced, just like we were supposed to. We had been dating only three months at that point, and if you were panicked or anxious, you didn’t show it. You wore a steady smile that crushed the world. We spent the night at a friend’s house. My mother called several times to verify our location, she even called and spoke to the mother of the house before granting permission. Your mother would have let you do anything.

The theme of our prom had to do with that Elton John song from the Lion King soundtrack. It was a weird choice because Kurt Cobain had just died, and I remember thinking we should have had a Nirvana-inspired prom. But I wasn’t popular enough to suggest it. You and I slow danced, and I should have remembered this more clearly-your hand against the sateen of my dress, your rough palm catching on the fibers, your breath against my ear-but I don’t remember dancing at all. I don’t remember the limo, the clumsy game of pool at a local bowling alley, I just remember you: how you looked, how you smelled, how you electrified me with your touch. I had never been so in love with anyone before, it was as if you eclipsed any reason I may have had.

I slept on a water bed with two other girls, not a water mattress, but an actual water bed with plush leather sides for steadying yourself. You woke me in the middle of th23111_lge night with a gentle touch. Come with me, you whispered into the darkness.

We sat on the kitchen floor and talked about Cobain, the cigarette they found in the ashtray with lipstick on the filter. I assumed Courtney had been there, that she had pushed him somehow into killing himself. She had to be involved, had to wear that responsibility. If only she had been better, cleaner, sober, softer. You disagreed. The lipstick may have been his, or maybe hers from long ago. It boggled my mind that someone so talented could hate themselves so deeply. Life is hard, you said between drags of a Newport, death is easy.

It was dark in that kitchen except for a distant porch light. We sat cross-legged on the linoleum, our backs against a slip of yellow wallpaper. Then, you said it. Casual and quiet.

I love you.

I love you too.

Your blue eyes lit the air around us and your kisses tasted like menthol, but I didn’t care. You loved me, and that was all that mattered in the world. Life is hard, this was easy.

 

**Learn more about Amye Archer here.

The Shot and The Draw

I still remember the feeling of my first heartbreak. I’m not talking about –you’re over there and I’m way over here-heartbreak, I’m talking about the heartbreak sitting right here on my chest, the looking over my shoulder, breathing in my ear heartbreak. The heartbreak that holds you and never lets go.

I’m thirteen and bus 62 is a cauldron of teen angst. Some boys light cigarettes and hang out of the partially descending windows, some girls scribble the names of bad boys onto books, others carve words into the skin of their ankles, and the driver drives, ignorant to it all. I initially sit near the front, but am soon pulled to the back by older girls and the promise of their friendship. Tammy is mentally unstable, and even at 13 I can clearly identify this trait. She wants to be my friend, yet threatens to beat the shit out of me on a daily basis. This has been happening for months.

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Me at 13. Quite the fox, I might add.

Today, she and her crew call me to the back for some arbitrary reason. Maybe they ask to borrow money, or need someone to laugh at. Those are the details that fall into the street with the traffic, because at this point Ollie is all I can see. A regular, brown-haired boy sitting behind Tammy and her friends. He’s cute enough, with a nice smile and a freckled nose. But I can’t recall what drew me to him. I only remember the after. It’s like I can remember the shot but not the draw.

Here is what I do remember:
The autumn light in his hair and on my shoulders and the way he smelled, like motor oil and Marlboro Reds, like freedom to a 13-year-old girl whose parents won’t let her leave the front porch with a boy. He smiles, he calls me something cute like “sweetie” or “honey,” and I melt into my seat and burn with the sun against the cheap upholstery.

Ollie was older than me. 15-which is an entire universe away in teenage years. He knew things I didn’t, like how to get a homeless guy to buy us beer, how to light a smoke with a match in a wind storm, and which woods were the safest to drink in. His parents were absent, I think, I don’t remember ever really seeing them. His house seemed full of mismatched car parts and brothers. He went to school like one goes to church, sporadically at best, and only if it was really important. But he protected me, held me against him in the storm of middle school drama. When Tammy and her friends started upping their game and really scaring me, Ollie was there. He threatened anyone who looked at me wrong. He  beat the shit out of anyone and everyone who bothered me. To a 13-year-old girl, this was kryptonite.

Here is what I do remember:
His hands, calloused and small, traversing my virgin skin. A worn mattress, red curtains, and Ozzy Osborne. I have lied to my mother. I have lied to this boy. I have lied to myself. I have lied to everyone. The candle becomes a nub and I bury myself under his worn blankets. It will be decades before I dig my way out of that cave. I imagine the 14-year-old ghost of me forever roaming that small basement.

We broke up, and some of that is fuzzy. He left me, I can’t remember if it was for another girl or if a defect of mine inevitably rose to the surface.

At 37, I can confidently say that there was no reason on earth to love him the way that I did. But at 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 23, 24, 28 and all of those years in between, loving Ollie was as natural as breathing. At 26, 27, obese and stuck in a bad marriage, that feeling-being tucked tightly against Ollie’s chest-was a feeling I’d swim back to over and over again and hope to drown.

Just Kids

I lost my beloved grandmother last month, and as part of trying to process what happened, I’m using some writing therapy to get through it. Forgive me the sentimentality.

Just Kids

While you were dying, I was reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I had just started it, still knee-deep in her catholic upbringing when I first heard the word cancer. Patti’s own words started to blur together after that. Mary, crucifix, Brooklyn, I couldn’t crawl out of the haze. The nurses ticked in and out of your room like seconds, we barely noticed them. I told you about the cancer. I called your friends and told them, drove to your apartment and pulled the shades up and down twice a day, washed your clothes, checked your mail, read the tabloids to you, and waited. You do the dying, I’ll do the rest.

While you were dying, we talked about the weather, the Kennedy’s, the royal family, Bill Clinton, neighborhood gossip, and the University where we worked together-me a teacher, you a server in the cafeteria-seven years of education separating us. I forgot about the cancer occasionally, we both did.

While you were dying, I wrote you a thousand and one-half poems in three days. They all started like this one. Suddenly, I wanted to remember everything-the shift of my weight against your hip as I sat at your bedside, the cold of your hand, the sound of your labored breath, the creak of the bed rail, the beep of the IV, I hung onto all of it, wallpapered my brain with my last images of you and lived in that room for weeks.

The sun fell faster than it had in days, like it was dropping from the sky with no purpose. The weathermen talked about the cold snap. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had just become Robert Patti Bluestar, and you were gone. I couldn’t bear to read anymore. I imagine they still live at 160 Hall Street. I imagine Robert still stringing the beaded curtain and Patti still fanning through art books. Between the tattered black covers of their story is where you will die forever.

While you were dying, I wrote you a thousand and one-half poems in three days. They all ended like this one.

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Our Song

An excerpt from the new book I’m working on:

You are dying. We are driving home from a car dealership in a nearby town, when suddenly- your leg starts to thump, that’s how I know. It’s my signal, my auditory cue. The thumping starts slowly and softly at first, like a slow clap. Your body begins to rock, slightly. Streetlights click on around us and the orange of the sunset dims to pink. We are in the dark.

“You need to get me home,” you say.

“I know, I know,” I answer and press down on the gas pedal.

But my acceleration and half-hearted assurances cannot stop the madness in your veins. The streetlights are streaks now as I speed down Route Six and into Scranton.

“Please, please, get me home, I need to go home.”

“I’m trying, Babe, I’m trying,” I say.

I reach out for you and you pull. You cling to me like I am air. It becomes hard to drive, and I think about pulling over against the blackness of the woods lining the shoulder, but time is of the essence and I know I need to go on. We need to move forward.

“I’m dying, I’m dying, please help me.” Four years earlier, this phrase would have alarmed me, sent me into a panic as well, but I’m becoming familiar with your death, and I react like a woman who has left something in the oven too long.

“You’re not dying honey, you’re not. It will be okay, I’m getting you home. Close your eyes, take a breath.”

Amazingly, you attempt this.

“I can’t,” you snap, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

It’s either the heart or the head, always, a heart attack or a brain tumor, I prepare for both.

heartbeat[1]_3“Here, let me check.” I slide my right hand across the fabric of your shirt. My touch is magical, it calms you. The thumping slows, the pumping of your blood under my palm is the only sound in the world right now.

“One, two, three,” I count aloud as the car wisps around darkening corners.

This is our song, the thumping, the push of blood against arterial walls, the rush of your breath, the hush of my voice. This is the rhythm of us, the melody between us.

There was a time when I thought our song was Heaven, by Bryan Adams. We made out to it in the back seat of your friend’s car about a week after we started dating. You pushed your tongue hard into my mouth and cupped my face with your large hands. It was early spring, and the windows fogged easily. A boy had never kissed me like that before, with such desperation. But the song disintegrated quickly, and we forgot the heat of that night. Now, our song is medicinal, born out of fear and need, much like the story of us.

“Seventy-four,” I land on a final number as the headlights swipe across the front of our apartment building. We are home and your heart rate is normal.

Later that night, we curl into bed together, a rarity in our lives. But your panic has been especially bad in the weeks and months following the terror attacks, and you’ve needed me, even at night. For a long time after the towers fell, we watched together as the news channels played an endless loop of horror: planes into towers, towers disintegrating into dust, people running from dust, a plume of smoke and dust rising from the belly of Manhattan. That’s what I remember the most: the dust. But these images bother you. The worst part is the falling, you tell me one night while we are wrapped together in bed. My hand still covering the space where I believe your heart to be. Those people jumping, that is the worst. Your heart quickens and the room darkens around us. Now, we watch old game shows to calm your panic. Your heart is slow and steady like the dripping of a faucet, and I lay pressed against you like a dam.

“I’m so sorry,” you whisper one night and pull my arms around you.

“For what?”

“For being so fucked up.”

“You’re not fucked up,” I whisper, “you’re perfect.”

Did I really say that? If I didn’t, I’m sorry, I should have. The jumping bothered everyone. I should have said that too.

20 Reasons to Consider an MFA

10thLogo_400x400This year marks the 10th anniversary of Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MA/MFA Program. I cannot believe it’s been six years since I have walked through those hallowed doors.  Wilkes has done many things for me, but perhaps the most significant is this: Wilkes made it okay for me to consider myself a writer.  No longer was writing a hobby, or something I wished I could do with my life, writing was real and present in my everyday life.  I’m always asked the same question: why an MFA? why Wilkes? My answer is never simple, and it won’t be simple today.

20 Reasons to Consider an MFA:

  1. Because at eleven years old, you told a lie in your writing that was believed deeply by the adults in your life.
  2. Because you invented Richard and Leona when you were twelve.
  3. Because you saw a story about a little girl, and that story started a fire deep inside of you that only a poem could snuff out.
  4. Because divorce and heartbreak and loss and grief and betrayal spill onto the page in exactly the same ink as love and happiness.
  5. Because Richard and Leona were high school sweethearts, you invented a difficult road ahead for them.
  6. Because men have loved you in the wrong ways, and words never have.
  7. Because everyone else in your family paints.
  8. Because in middle school you wrote love poems and sold them for $1 apiece.
  9. Because Richard could never accept his lot in life and gambled away the mortgage payment-which enraged Leona.
  10. Because when bad things happened to you, the answer was never in a bottle, but always in a journal.
  11. Because when you were thirteen, you believed with every fiber of your being that you could communicate with John Lennon, and the only boy in the world who believed you was another poet.
  12. Because Leona ran off with the pool boy, and you had not yet learned of cliché.
  13. Because you couldn’t afford therapy.
  14. Because you have few gifts to offer, words will have to suffice.
  15. Because New York City is beautiful at dusk, and only a poem can tell us so.
  16. Because you loved Richard and Leona, your first characters, even though they couldn’t love each other.
  17. Because life is hard, and words are easier.
  18. Because you have a story that lives inside of you, and if you don’t pay attention, it will claw its way out.
  19. Because Richard and Leona deserve a chance.
  20. Because everyone needs love, and you have learned how to give it…with words.

If you have a belly full of ideas and a heart bursting with stories, you will find no better canvas on which to experiment than the Wilkes University Creative Writing Program.

Baseball

I don’t know when it happened, and at the time I was completely unaware of the first break in my parent’s marriage.  But looking back on it now, some thirty years later, I can see a very distinct line in my childhood.  On one side there is light, on the other there is a shadow.

We lived in a top floor apartment until I was six.  I spent a lot of time alone with my mother.  I had Billy Joel’s Glass Houses on cassette.  My father was a drummer in a band, so I was always surrounded by music.  The Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, I had young parents and was lucky enough to be engulfed in these bands from a young age.  But there was something about “You May Be Right,” Billy Joel’s anthem of indignation and unhealthy love that resonated with me at five or six years old.  So, I play the song over and over.  It’s not long before I discover I can tip the radio speakers to the floor and let my neighbors hear it.

My father gives Jennie and me a shower while my mother is out for the night at some aerobics class, (it’s the 80’s).  Jennie has a bathing cap and I don’t.  As the younger sister, I begin to cry and throw a fit.  The bathroom is blue, even the toilet is an aquamarine color.  My father finds an old New York Yankee’s batting helmet and puts Band-Aids over the holes.  There, he says, now you have a bathing cap too.  Later, as he dries us into the fluff of a warm towel he regales us with funny stories about doors and wheels falling off of his car on his drive to work.  We laugh so hard we almost shatter.
brett3My father’s belly is a mountain.  I sprawl out on the peak, feel his breath lift my little body up and down.  On a tiny black and white television, The Yankees are playing the Kansas City Royals.  The room is covered in shadows. George Brett is ejected from the game because he has used too much pine tar on his bat.  My father is whooping and yelling for my mother.  I bounce high into the air and fall.  Some nights the Yankees lose. Other nights, the Yankees win.  Reggie Jackson is my favorite player.  The world around us is pinstriped and perfect.

We come home from a camping trip to find our television has been hit by lightning.  My father places the small black and white on top of our mahogany console.  Jennie and I sprawl out on our shag rug and spend two hours watching Little House on the Prairie.  I fall asleep against the propped elbows of my sister.

This is the light.

Lips

03/11/2015

I could write an epic about your lips.

The way they puckered into a kiss before you could even speak, like you knew that love came first-before speech.

The way they glistened in the sun that summer I taught you how to swim and you went under for longer then I care to admit. Your tears slicking the surface of the quiver.

The way they snarled, contorted the whole right side of your mouth into disapproval when I pressed my hands against your small back and propelled you into Kindergarten, where you discovered that no, your teacher wouldn’t let you break out into spontaneous dance, or draw little purple houses on the backs of your hands.

The way they say “Mommy,” like you were always meant to say it to me.

The way the bottom tucks itself up under your front tooth when you’re damming up a river of sobs with the cotton of your interior.

The way they still pucker into a kiss for anyone who will have your kindness.

The way they soften, when the rest of the world is hard.