My Manhattan career began at a small yet very chic ad agency on Broadway in NoHo, which was referred to in those days as “Silicon Alley”. You know the type, soaring loft ceilings with the guts of the building displayed like a designer construction site. All of the desks were at off angles and the walls were bright yellow. Everything that wasn’t coated in paint was polished stainless steel. It was all just so shiny. Coming from a sea of grey cubes at Raleigh’s IBM campus, it was like I had stepped into Oz.
We worked eighty-hour weeks, blazing new trails on what was still referred to in some circles as the information super highway. At that time we had both the Chef Boyardee and Jose Cuervo accounts, which meant all of the free canned pasta and tequila you could consume. Most of the food was left over from failed market testing of new recipes like Shrimp Alfredo and the like. Mock if you will but if you’re broke, drunk, and designing at 2 am shrimp in a can doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. The copywriters were always off smoking pot in the stairwells. Our ideas were plastered online and on billboards. We had the flashiest websites and the cleverest taglines. “Cuervo. Make strangers your friends and your friends a lot stranger.” We were living the dream.
For years Mom would refer to this as my “career phase” as if it were something you could take an antibiotic for or at least outgrow in time to make some babies and get that coveted part time gift shop position. At the time she said her biggest failure was raising me to be too independent. I’m not a parent and likely never will be but that seems a little backwards to me. In fact, my independence is the greatest gift she ever gave me. I should thank her for that, but I probably won’t.
“I’m sorry I made you bipolar.”
Wait, what? My mother stood in the kitchen stoically wiping a dish that was already dry. “I know I made you this way.” I was stunned, and at quite a loss for words. I was already uncomfortable in this scene even without the abrupt confession.
My mother’s house was so her: beautiful and unwelcoming. She had always lived in that damned yellow kitchen. Lemon and white striped wallpaper, stiff and perfect, topped with an elaborate wrap-around border painted with fruits and vegetables. I remember when she picked out the wallpaper. She loved that border so much but it was about two inches too wide to fit over the top the doorways in the room. Instead of picking a slimmer one, she made the interior designer hand-trim the extra two inches of white border off the bottom, cutting around each leaf and stem of that intricate pattern until it blended with seeming effortlessness into the stripes below, just passing above the impeding doorways. That was my mother.
I was wedged awkwardly into one of her prickly wicker side chairs; staring blankly at the back of her head as Fox News was droning on in the background. “I don’t think that’s the way it works, Mom.” I didn’t want to let her off the hook. There were so many other things she needed to apologize for. This just wasn’t one of them.
I was just grateful that she finally acknowledged something went wrong with the way she raised me. While she was misguided in her apology, I appreciated the effort. In many ways I’ve made peace with it all. Maybe I’ve just become skilled at compartmentalizing over the years. There’s the adult version of me who sees a tiny, increasingly frail woman inching slowly and tragically toward dementia. It’s difficult to harbor rage for such a helpless creature. But child me? Child me is pissed.
That tattered leather chair was so obviously out of place in the otherwise immaculate décor of our house. It was old, black, and tired, with tiny fissures running down the back cushion like a colony of persistent spider webs. The top skin of leather had been worn off of the seat in soft beige spots but the tarnished brass nail-head trim that surrounded the piece reminded everyone of its regal origins. It had been passed down through my father’s side of the family and had once been a fine specimen of the tradition of North Carolina furniture making.
It sat in the back corner of the den our prototypical seventies household, softly wearing four dents into the rust-colored shag carpet. It was his spot and that fact was non-negotiable. Its purpose was to house him for drinking and watching TV. This was back in the days when children were human remote controls and amateur bartenders. He used to laugh at me for being so heavy handed with the alcohol in his vodka tonics. Hell, I didn’t know the difference; it all looked the same to me. Dad occupied his throne like a lazy benevolent dictator, but as long as his immediate needs were met – ice in his drink and “Hee-Haw” playing on channel 3 – he was largely silent. He had the uncanny ability to tune out any chaos that arose around him. And there was plenty of chaos.
From that chaos, all I really ever wanted was some sort of safe place to just exist without fear or anxiety. I felt ashamed of being scared. Nobody was beating me, well, not unless you count the general smacking around that was the sibling pecking order of the household of which I was on the lowest rung. I had a lovely roof over my head and wanted for nothing material. School was school. Family was family. I was the one they all bullied. It made for long, sometimes terrifying days. All I wanted was for it all to stop, just for a while, until I caught my breath. The only stillness and calm emanated from the man in that chair. I used to mistake that calm for kindness and affection. I’m sure it was there somewhere beneath the shield of alcohol and digital distraction he wore to keep the world out. When I was little, I climbed up in it once when he was there and wrapped my arms around his neck. He gently pushed me away. There was nothing there for me.
When no one was around I used to curl up in that chair seeking solace – that safe warm spot – like a cat sneaking in to take the place of the soft indentation left by its temporarily displaced master. I imagined he was there with me, comforting me. But there was only ever room for one of us in that chair, so I went along my way.
I remember that time I wrote a song.
I remember doing it while trying to capture those fleeting experiences.
I remember the blue of his eyes and the way his laughter made everything wrong fade away.
I remember getting drunk and dancing with him on my rooftop in the dead heat of summer.
I remember that trip to that sculpture garden in Queens and how I thought the wind chimes looked like giant flowers growing out the dirt.
I remember the taste of that chocolate fudge cake he surprised me with while we were there because he remembered my birthday when nobody else did.
I remember the “locals” tour of the city he took me on in my silver 4Runner.
I remember the fantastic crusty old abandoned buildings he showed me with each one having its own story.
I remember the day I left in that same 4Runner.
I remember thinking I was going to make it through goodbye without crying (I never cry).
I remember being wrong about that.
I see myself reflected back in your gaze
The better part of me
The me you make me believe I am
You have that kind of power
(and you know it)
To strip me away
Until I am completely unvarnished
Naked and unafraid
Not so that you can remake me
But that I can do it on my own
As you watch with a smile
And say “good girl”
Gut in a tangle
Sucks that it’s so accurate
If I could only paint the dread away
I’d be at peace
Instead I lie here in pending pain
Sleepless and empty
Slouching toward solitude