A Crucial Bit of Advice to Incoming College Freshmen

Dear upcoming college freshman, 

Congratulations. You did it. You completed four years of high school, scored sufficiently on the SAT and participated in enough extra-ciricular activities that a university saw fit to add you to its roster, provided you take out enough in student loans to remain in debt well into your twilight years. You are on your way.

One of the first things you should learn as a burgeoning adult is to ignore most unsolicited advice. This advice is the exception. Because I'm about to give you a tip that you should stash into your backpack for safe keeping.

One thing you may not know, but will soon discover is this: No one cares a single shred if you go to class. From this day forward, going to school is utterly optional. Remember how you'd get in-school suspension for skipping algebra? Now you are fully off the hook! You have to go to class never.

You are paying for your higher education! You will say this to yourself when you've had one too many Fireballs the night before and your alarm starts buzzing at 7 a.m. (another common college freshman mistake: scheduling classes before noon). You will say, "I am paying for my higher education! I can skip class if I want!" And you will. 

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If you choose to skip out on a class and instead pull yourself out of a hangover with the other half of the burrito you failed to finish the night before paired with yesterday's coffee, you are well within your right. But know this, budding co-ed: You keep your mouth shut the next time you make it to school.

A couple of decades ago when I entered an institution of higher learning, I signed up for a class on Pop Culture, wherein we dissected the most pedestrian of art forms: slasher films, Journey songs and romance novels. Our syllabus was filled with the most middlebrow art imaginable, and as fun as that sounds, I still wasn't able to drag my ass to class on the day we started The Italian Billionaire's Secretary Mistress.

Cut to Thursday, day two of our look at lusty fiction, and I was rested and ready. I'd missed the introductory discussion to this pink paperback book, but that didn't matter to me. I wanted to make up for lost time, so I picked a spot in the front row. I was present and wanted to be counted. I wanted the professor to know I was ready for an imparting of knowledge on torn bodices. 

So, when she asked the class, "Who reads romance novels?," I shot my hand high into the air. I knew this one. Duh.

She pointed at me and I stated as clearly as a bell, "Housewives." I beamed at her and waited for her laugh. My answer was both accurate and humorous.

Except it wasn't. Except that with that single word my professor shot me a look that could melt steel. Behind me ripples of titters erupted. I wanted to disappear into the desk.

Turns out the teacher had spent the entire class before, the one I'd chosen to skip, lecturing the students about how housewives are not the only people who read romance novels. Not only that! But she'd apparently gotten very heated at the very idea of the term "housewives," warning everyone that the word was sexist and dismissive. Except me. Because I wasn't there.

So, let my humiliation be your forewarning: If you skip class, and you will (oh, how you will), show up on time to the following session, ask for notes from a trusted friend and for the love of all that is good and holy, keep your mouth closed. Don't say a damn word.

Best of luck! And may the wind be at your back.

(Photo by Kevin Dooley)


What He Said

Graham Greene on jealousy:

"Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel: sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust. In a beleaguered city every sentry is a potential traitor. Even before Mr. Parkis I was trying to check on her: I would catch her in small lies, evasions that meant nothing except her fear of me. For every lie I would magnify into a betrayal, and even in the most open statement I would read hidden meanings. Because I couldn't bear the thought of her so much as touching another man, I feared it all the time, and I saw intimacy in the most casual movement of the hand." -The End of the Affair


It Was the Age of Foolishness

I wasn't exactly like the other kids in my class, because my family wasn't from Ashland City. We moved there after my parents' divorce, after my mom remarried, when I was in 4th grade. I fit in okay, but I felt that I existed mostly on the periphery. I made friends with effort and time, but I also liked to spend my time lost in books.

Reading was something I enjoyed from an early age, but when we moved to that small Tennessee town with two stop lights and fewer than 2,000 people, I wanted to be known as a Reader. I decided to latch on to something I loved -- fiction -- and make it part of my identity. I read for pleasure and kept those books clearly on display in my locker.

In 8th grade I checked out A Tale of Two Cities from the middle school library, the biggest book they had. I carried it around with me at all times, whipping it out at the most opportune moments, hoping to impress classmates who couldn't have cared less.

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After three long days of carrying the tome around, having been unable to get past page four, I decided on some next-level showing off. 

My plan was simple: Ask for help from a teacher with a particularly tough word in the text as a way to highlight that sure, I was 12, but I was already cracking into the classics. Because I was whip-smart and to be adored. And ambitious. And to be feared.

When our English instructor gave us time in the afternoon to work quietly at our desks until the bell rang, as she often did, I cracked open Dickens' whopper and heaved it to her desk.

"Ms. Bower, I was wondering if you could tell me what this means?" 

I placed my scrawny eighth grade finger under a word with multiple syllables and looked up sweetly in hopes she could assist.

She peered onto the page, one of the first four in the entire brick of a book, and said, "Look it up in the the dictionary, Brittney."

"And I don't think you're ready for books that big," she said.

She was right, I wasn't. And I never did read A Tale of Two Cities.


Morning Bus Scenes

A man with calloused hands darkened by time and labor pulls apart a mango with thick fingers. Juice falls onto a weathered tin plate that sits atop his lap. 

The front door of an office building is wrapped in shiny striped wrapping paper, as though what's inside is a gift.

Flyers for shows where we could dance together peel away from the street pole. We'll go if I can stand being 15 years older than the girls grinding in crop tops.

A poster showing a portly Seth Rogen hangs beside one featuring a forever-thin Kate Moss. 

A man wearing too many coats argues with himself or someone none of us can see. He pounds his fists against a truck spray painted with the word Reyes, the name of the artist whose work lives forever on the arm of my lover.


Last Night I Thought I Was Dying

I spent some time today looking for a psychologist because last night I thought I was going to die.

"I'm going to lose consciousness alone in this bedroom," was something I thought. "How long will it take for them to find my body?," was another.

I was just sitting and reading. I was propped up in bed with a book and my cats and a glass of wine. I was a portrait of relaxation. Then, out of the cold blue, I was awash in panic.

The words on the page shrunk and danced. Sweat bubbled up on my forehead. My neck and chest became slick and the hair at my nape grew wet. My heart was a wild thing, as big as the room.

"I'm having a hot flash," was another thing I thought. "Could I be pregnant?"

I swung my legs onto the floor and tried to stand, but couldn't. The room seemed wavy. I considered walking to SF General Hospital just five blocks away, but knew immediately that I'd have to crawl. I picked up my cell phone and wondered if I'd still be alive when the ambulance arrived.

My hands tingled to the point of numbness. I tried desperately to slow my breathing. The sweating became so profuse that I shed my clothes, though doing so left me unstable and dizzy.

"I'm having a stroke," was something that crossed my mind. "Is this a heart attack?" was another.

Doom and dread and absolute fear pressed down on my entire body. I entertained the idea that I'd never see my boyfriend again, but I was too panicked to feel the weight of that notion. I thought about my cats and how much food was in their bowls. 

I wiped my face and neck and chest with the shirt I'd discarded and it became dark with moisture. I placed my hand on my abdomen to make sure the breaths I was taking were real.

My fingers trembled as I sent a text message to my best friend and boyfriend. Both of the messages said, "I don't know what to do."

Never before had I felt so physically helpless. I was convinced that I was going to the hospital. I was sure that I was going to die.

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. The panic receded. My hands steadied. My breath slowed. The sweating ceased. 

A quick Google search later and I discovered I'd had a panic attack.  The internet tells me that if I had one, I will likely have another.

I wonder if next time I'll think my life is over.


The Ghost with the Red Bow

There is a ghost living in my neighborhood, if you can call that living. She stumbles from corner to corner, often hanging from someone's arm, a different someone every time. 

Her hair is bleached blonde with dark roots. It is matted into a shoulder-length shell due to all the unwashings. Sometimes she clips a flithy red bow into the back of it.

It's hard to say if she was a beauty when she was still alive, because she doesn't look anyone in the eye. She twitches and jerks. Her face is a blur. But you can make out ruddy cheeks and smears of mascara and what I think are sea green eyes. 

"I've never seen her not like that," a shopkeeper once said. "I heard she used to be a school teacher. She graduated from college." 

I can never make out exactly what she's saying, but I can tell she's always trying to convince people to give her things. The streets keep her trim and she's young, so she remains suspended in a constant haze, not yet knowing the bone-crushing bottom.

Once I saw her giving head on a bus stop bench. I recognized the red bow.

I wonder who she kissed when she was still alive. I wonder if she ever had her heart broken before love stopped mattering. 

I have heard her wailing at night.

She is haunted. And she walks the streets among us, and we cower in fear. 


There We Went

Everywhere there were roads. Sometimes it seemed like that was all there was. Miles and miles of ashphalt and pastures smeared by speed. All those things left unsaid in the cab of a little Ford.

Everywhere meant driving. Walking meant you were a kid on a summer day exploration or a freak or a person who got one too many DUIs. If you went anywhere you went in the car.

Driving somewhere meant sitting side by side. Depending on the kind of car, your knees could even touch. He'd give you a ride and you'd both be staring in the same direction, going the same way.

Cars were little homes that went. Entire lives happened under seatbelts.

The roads were threads we took. We wore them down and memorized them with our muscles.


The Kitchen To Come

I made him fish, the wild kind. I bought a heavy bag full of oranges, sliced them then strangled them for their juices. I minced bulbs and made dressing from scratch and reduced liquid to a  shiny glaze.

"It's sweet," he said. "You should always make fish like this."

We shared a bottle of red. After dinner he helped me clear the dishes then we stepped into the backyard to share a smoke. We barely fit together on the step, but when I scooted over a bit there was plenty of room.

There are lots of rooms. There are entire homes we've not yet inhabited.

If I said I didn't sometimes imagine how I'd look in an apron, swollen at the belly, shoeless in a kitcken not yet ours, I would be lying.


Baby, Hi

It is when I am lonely that I show my face in hopes you will click it twice and reveal a heart. Even though that heart hasn't pumped a drop of blood, I will run my eyes through a filter and hope that you like it.

It is when I am disconnected that I share the art I have found, a reblog of a print of the original. Who made it? Who knows? Did you see that I was looking at art?

It's when you aren't around that I let words fly in hopes they warm you. What is it that you do when I miss you? 

I took a photo. It wasn't for me, it was for you, but your name is still not beneath it. 

If I slept until I saw you again there would only be static, so I daydream in digital. I construct a self you'll want to kiss on the mouth.

I read poems so I can tell you about them later.