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Dracula, Darling

I don’t understand the appeal of horror movies.

This realization washed over me after the Are You Afraid of the Dark? version of Sleepy Hollow left me sobbing hysterically in a kitchen corner, watching my mother drive off into the night. And all I had was a geriatric dog staring at me, wheezing and licking my hand.

Still, Dracula was my first crush. In fact, my fascination with The Monster Squad villain bordered on an obsession. I couldn’t stop watching him. And despite my repeated attempts, I couldn’t quite pinpoint his appeal–why I felt compelled to watch him execute his misdeeds every Halloween.

I’d ruled out his cane; his cape was fantastic, but that wasn’t it. And as much as I’d wanted his hearse, it wasn’t his ride driving me to sit at the edge of my seat, eyes glued to his dark form cutting across the television screen. It was just him—his eyes, his dark, devilish, brooding persona. Those three virginal girls he’d locked away didn’t know how good they had it, and I became intensely envious of them. I might not have known what qualified someone as a virgin, but if being one was the only qualifier for Dracula’s attention, I desperately wanted to be one.

I contemplated this conundrum as I waited in line to see Deep Impact. But this exceedingly important mental exercise was interrupted by three preppy boys from my sixth grade class.

In addition to being experts at social ostracism, they also specialized in mind-reading.

“Hey, Matthew. Are you…” they paused for emphasis, “a virgin?!”

Momentary silence ensued.

“Well, are you?!”

I sounded out the word in my head, drew from the facts I’d know on the matter, and came to an indisputable conclusion.

“Of course not.”

After all, I wasn’t a girl like the ones Dracula favored.

They rolled their eyes, laughed, and walked away.

“Fools,” I muttered, “I’d be so lucky.”

But fifteen years later I knew with absolute certainty that I wasn’t a virgin. And I wasn’t gazing inquisitively at Dracula, imagining him in my arms.

Instead, I was sitting on my lidded toilet reading Nietzsche. Sure, I would’ve preferred to have spent Halloween watching my dark knight bloody the bejesus out of small town dopes. But I was too preoccupied with Nietzsche’s ruminations about death, forgetfulness, history, and cows. That, and the retaliatory, tortuous acts the neighborhood’s little hellions were exacting on my defenseless porch plants–all for not squeezing a bag of dollar store candy out of my monthly graduate student stipend.

At least I’d remembered to bolt the door. Because, really, kids nowadays don’t even bother dressing up, and candy isn’t the endgame; cash will do, as will your grandmother’s brooch. You never quite know if the seemingly innocuous Jonas Brothers trio on the front porch is concealing shanks and razors beneath their pails. And I really don’t want to take a chance and end up waking in an ice bath, wondering where in the world that damn kidney has gone.

Hell, for me dressing up for Halloween was a major undertaking–the closest I’ve ever come to religious devotion.

***

It’s 1988: my first Halloween. I can almost taste the chocolaty goodness. Glee isn’t exactly the most apropos descriptor for how I feel, but it’s close enough.

Hot, too. But mostly gleeful. Ecstatic even.

Jaded, Laura stands nearby, diligently rearranging her multicolored bracelets and smudging her bright red lipstick. She’s totally outrageous, I think, just like Jem! But the anticipation is killing me. Need. Chocolate. Now. The urge is intense. So much so that I feel it surging inside me, lurching up and down, up and down, in sync with my excited, hyperactive hopping.

And then I puke. Inside my plastic Mickey Mouse mask, out the mouth and eye holes.

I’ve completely shamed Mickey and might not get my candy! What a disaster! Jem is displeased.

A hose-down and perfume bath later, I’m strolling out the door, pail in hand, ready to make a night of it. Aside from the crushing disappointment of our massive Peanut Butter Kisses haul, our group treks home, with only one more stop to go.

But we don’t make it to the door. The group breaks, scattering and screaming–running from a werewolf. A quiet, even-keeled man most days of the year, our neighbor has really made a 180 this year. Bedecked in full, furry regalia, he’d popped out and charged us with pee-inducing snarls. How pee-inducing? Well

But a wee bit of wee is better than the full-on drenching that awaited a friend of mine, who dared set foot on some religious zealots’ Spartan lawn across town. With Bible in-hand, and garden hoses in the others, they made sure it was a Halloween he remembered.

***

A few years later, I plod to my CCD class’s Halloween party. My padded feet make sounds like compressed plush toys and my overstuffed black tail drags behind. Along the way, churchgoers point and smile, laugh even.

Actually, there’s a lot of laughing and pointing. With my artistically-rendered cat whiskers and nose matching my black cat ears and gloved hands, I’m a shoe-in for best costume.

But with every plushy step, every point and laugh by the passersby, I start feeling ill. Maybe today’s the wrong day. But my parents wouldn’t have dressed me up on the wrong day. Not a chance.

Just to err on the safe side, I sneak up to the classroom and peek around the corner. And there, in the class of 15, not a single kid is dressed up.

Panicking, I race down the hallway with my change of clothes. With no time to waste, I clip on my tie, throw my costume in a bag, and run back. Stopping just short of the classroom door, I take a breath and walk in as calmly as possible.

Laughter erupts.

I must’ve forgotten to zip up.

No, that’s not it.

In fact, I’d probably prefer my dong hanging out over the alternative. Everyone, including the teacher, is pointing at my painted face.

That’s what I get for using a bathroom without mirrors.

For the rest of class, I sit face-in-hands, muttering the answers to the teacher’s questions through my fingers.

“What’s that, my little kitty?!” she laughs.

“Jesus…Christ.”

Me-ouch.

***

It’s officially the last costume-clad Halloween of my childhood. But I don’t know that yet.

Halloweens past have induced more panic than excitement this time of year. But I still cobble together a costume, mostly because I scored a Skeletor-esque mask with green, blinking eyes. The time expenditure required for mask assembly isn’t really worth the effort, but I work diligently. After all, everyone I know is going to be at the Halloween festival a few blocks away.

Fully costumed, I begin my short walk to the festival and plan to hit up a few houses along the way. But it seems that my obsessive-compulsive habit for being early isn’t playing in my favor. Save a few pumpkins and bumble-bees toddling along with their parents, I’m the only one even close to eleven-years-old out at this hour. Instead of going back inside like a normal person, I decide to bide my time, wait out the youngsters.

Fifteen minutes later, my courage is shot—none of my friends are showing up. And I can’t muster the gumption to ask for candy. So I stand alone–the scrawny kid walking around with a blinking skeleton head, without a candy wrapper in sight.

Time to cut my losses and go to the festival.

When I arrive, the strollers easily outnumber the middle-schoolers, and I’m at a loss.

Again.

Dejected, I turn to leave. But then I spy the ubiquitous fishing game where you’re guaranteed a bag of crappy candy. And while my Halloween-tinged glasses are blinking green, I grab a rod and cast a line over, if for nothing else than nostalgia for the times of reliable, costumed friends and full-size candy bars.

I wait for the tug and the overly enthusiastic attendant clown to yell, “Looks like you have a bite there, son!” Despite my lackluster Halloween spirit, his overly emphatic enthusiasm makes me smile and I pull the line back over.

It has nothing on it.

“Whoopsie! That one must’ve gotten away! Try AGAIN!” the clown cheers, muttering to someone behind the faded blue curtain with iron-on goldfish peeling off of it.

Blushing mightily, I comply, get my candy, and skulk away. By this point, the blinking lights are becoming seizure-inducing, and I’m feeling queasy. But I keep munching on my pity candy.

Soon, though, the lights take their toll. I lose my bearings and smack into trees and lawn ornaments. After accidentally hugging a tree trunk, I hobble away with one eye light hanging down to my chin, reminiscent of a beaten, bedraggled Johnny Five. Utterly defeated, I snatch off the mask and throw it into a nearby garbage can.

Once I get home, I retreat upstairs, park myself in front of the television, and search desperately for my Halloween sweetheart.

***

I wish I can stay in costume, swim at the bottom of my vodka tonic forever. To return to the rigors of another week of graduate school is scary enough, much less without alcohol.

But having just received my first graduate paper back with a grade equivalent to a smack across the face, a turd in the soup, I require a little liquid solace. I try to tell myself that it’s a learning experience, that it’s just one paper.

Still, hearing about the rave reviews my peers received on their lemur papers makes me tip my cup back, beg it to swallow me, be my rabbit hole. When I lower my cup, the Mad Hatter stands next to me. But it’s all makeup, an illusion.

And it’s at this point that I wonder if me being in graduate school is more of a delusion than illusion. Why in the world did I think this was a good idea? And how did I think I could pull off leopard print?

Loaded and waxing philosophical in my Tarzan costume, I suddenly realize I’ve fallen for it: graduate school, a devilish trick, indeed.

Because if I’m to have life sucked out of me, I’d prefer the source to be a certain someone.

His deeply set disdain for mortals and all.

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Quotable Friends

Eyeglasses are my porcupine quills: indicators that you should venture elsewhere—far, far away from me.

And yet, bastards still poke, poke, poke.

Like the coworker invading my self-quarantined office.

“Wow, you eat a lot of yogurt. You eat that entire container in a day?”

I sharpen my gaze on her reddened cankles and slowly work my way up to her bloated face.

“There are worse things to eat.”

Point taken. She leaves.

***

But on the cusp of one of the most divisive elections in recent history, there’re plenty more who just don’t take the hints. Popular bloggers and prolific writers have penned articles of the “De-Friend Me” ilk, targeting Facebook and the “Friends” list we all like to think we regulate.

Still, I’m a curious being. So I pulled up my “Friends” list and searched “Mitt Romney” and “Paul Ryan.” And lo and behold! I found “friends” who’ve “liked” them. And I mean like them like them, not “liking” them to glean the latest drivel from the far right.

And sure, I wasn’t surprised by a few. I mean, c’mon. Like I really thought those people from high school I’ve been meaning to delete—who’ve stayed in the same small town, who’re still beating their bibles with as much conviction as the “good ol’ days”—are about to stand up and do something proactive for the future.

Bubye and good luck, y’all.

Still, there are the stealth supporters–friends you suspect will welcome you into their home, treat you nicely to your face. Then fill in the Romney/Ryan bubble on their voter form, and justify your continued marginalization by citing economic turmoil or foreign policies.

And yes, don’t we all wish LGBT rights weren’t topics to address in a presidential election, to sway someone’s vote? It’d be wonderful if they weren’t issues of concern. But they are.

So when my life is dragged out for public consumption, and my civil rights are contorted into “benefits” that I’m not “qualified” to receive, pardon me for getting a tad defensive.

For a lot of “friends,” it’s fun to have “the gays” in your fold, even if you’re quietly homophobic. Because having friends like them garners you certain attention, makes you feel special. But all you’re doing is appropriating part of someone’s life for personal gain.

You smile when they babysit your kids, buy you a drink, say you look nice, organize your wedding, treat you with respect.

And still you turn your back on them in the voter booth. There, within that tiny space, you align yourself with the same side pushing to disenfranchise the majority of Americans who don’t fall within a particular income bracket; whose skin isn’t the right color; whose first language isn’t English; whose health isn’t perfect; whose lives are just as disposable when they’re deployed as they are upon returning from service; whose bodies are “temples for God and country” and not for personal use and protection.

If you find yourself voting for that kind of national legacy, I hope you’re proud of yourself.

Because I’m not.

And I’m too goddamned tired to entertain “friends” from different “walks of life” if that means having people around me who think I’m not entitled to have the same rights that they enjoy. Who can’t see that “Romney/Ryan” signs translate to “Hates Gays, Loves Misogynists.”

But that’s reality.

And I wonder if dealing with this bullshit is worth it. If Andy and I wouldn’t be better off packing our apartment and moving to a country where we aren’t defined by gender identity and treated as “others.” Someplace where we can just be, and be respected.

It’s my hope that my true friends will have my back during this election. But if you’re planning to vote for Romney/Ryan, don’t expect to have any semblance of a relationship with me, regardless of how long we’ve known one another.

I’m not just talking “de-friending” me on Facebook. 

I mean, don’t speak to me. Don’t wish me well. Just leave.

I’ll understand.

I just wish you could, too.

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Calling Doctors of Interplanetary Craft

Oh, genetics.

How I love thee. What fun you’ve had constructing an immune system from defunct parts, every conceivable recombination long past warranty.

Making me grow up envying Tiny Tim’s health, rolling my eyes while watching him hop around on his little crutch, being all like, “Look at me, I’m sickly.” *Cough cough*

Dramatic little poseur.

“Look, you know you catastrophize illness. It’s not like you won’t recover from this,” Andy, the voice of reason, chides.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I protest, rearranging my black lace garb and reaching for my smelling salts.

Sickly

Fine.

I acquiesce.

Perhaps I do read too much into illness. But I get it naturally.

Aside from the fact that my pediatric file was about six inches thick, and I do actually get sick fairly often, I’m sure my paternal grandmother’s robust hypochondria-informed catastrophizing is hard-wired into my DNA.

“How’re you doing today, Mom-Mau?”

“Oh, my eye hurts. I think it’s The Eye Cancer.”

That was an actual conversation.

But rarely is it the case that the malady we think will take us down actually does. This has been true with every family member who’s passed, including Mom-Mau.

And I’m sure I’ll be no different.

I’ll probably dab my nose with a tissue, look up at a beautiful sky and curse my luck with my latest plague, glance over and see a new antique shop across the street, start crossing, and not even hear the Prius coming, because it’ll be in electric mode. I’m not saying Andy will be behind the wheel, having grown exhausted from 40 years’ worth of my crazed malady ramblings. But he does have a Prius.

It’s probably no help that, while infirmed, I watch movies I really shouldn’t. Like earlier this year, when I had some bizarre pneumonia-bronchitis combination and watched Contagion.

Or yesterday, when I watched Outbreak. And then started feeling worse halfway through. Which meant I had the virus in the movie–not my doctor’s sinus infection-strep throat diagnosis–and the Army was going to “clean sweep” my apartment.

Fine. I didn’t really think that was going to happen. But I did start feeling bad about myself, about missing work, being lazy, gross, and completely useless.

So I watched Mommie Dearest. After which I ran to my closet, ensuring I had no damned wire hangars!

But then Andy came home with dinner after a ridiculously hectic work day, and I felt much better. Mostly because all I’d had for sustenance was Gatorade.

Kidding!

So, I channeled my best Rene Russo, smiled at him, coughed, and mentally chided myself.

You’re fine. Now that you’ve got all your antibodies. 

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Those Days

We’ve all had those days.

You know.

When you have horrendous nightmares and wake up with a sore throat, a harbinger of a future week of infirmity. When you swear it was 2 AM two minutes ago when you got up to take Ibuprofen and Mucinex, but now the first of your three alarms is going off. When you find some ginger tea in the pantry, make a mug full, and scald the top of your mouth with the first sip.

Tea and tissues

When you think about the other day when you couldn’t remember your age and were left wondering what you’ve done with your twenties. When you think about performing a PIT maneuver on the incompetent Sebring driver hovering in your blind spot, just so the burning embers of the ensuing wreckage will shine in your eyes—give them some dimension this somber Monday morning. When you find yourself on the side of the road crying “I’ll never let go, Jack!” as Celine Dion bellows about how her heart will go on.

When you finally get to work, see the pink mold growing on the office wall, fight the urge to vomit, and realize you have a massive rust stain on your sweater.

You know, those days.

Not that any of that happened this morning.

***

So then you think the day will pick up. It won’t be so bad. Cheer up, buttercup! And all that bullshit.

Your coworkers filter in. One of them blows up the bathroom, and another chatters your ear off about purple or penguins. Still, you try to be optimistic. Even when the rust stain doesn’t rinse out. Even when it’s easier to cry and give up.

Because, after all, the new hire is coming today. Perhaps they’ll be a sociable savior, a respite of sorts from the spineless amoebas with whom you work. Then you see pleated pants. An unkempt beard. Detect the slight inadequacies specific to a socially-inept anthropologist.

You fight the urge to eat your feelings. And then convince yourself it’s the only alternative.

So you lip sync the chorus of “Bleed Like Me” as he’s introduced by the office’s Numero Uno Nutbag (NUM).

And imagine yourself somewhere else.

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Blushing Pink

After flipping over the sixth pillow and finding an $85.00 price tag, I start searching for the clearance rack. If this swanky décor boutique even has one.

So I smile and peruse and pick things up and try not to drop them because everything is bloody expensive.

And then, behold, the clearance rack!

But I know even before puttering over to the dark corner where all things stained and forgotten are banished that I’m not here for a chipped vase–even if it’s only $55.00!

I’ve been thinking about these “Mr.” bowtie hand towels since I first saw them with Andy. I was so despicably close to snagging them then, along with two “Mr.” mustache-laced highball glasses, that I really want them now.

But, there’s a catch: “Mr.” towels are tied to their “Mrs.” complements.

Because, sweet readers, it seems only straight couples can have these particular hand towels.

But just for bitchy shits, I give it a whirl.

“Excuse me. Is there any way I can switch these two so that there are two ‘Mr.’ towels?”

The smartly dressed employee walks from behind the counter, smiling as she does.

“Oh, hmmm. I thought each was sold separately. I doubt there will be an issue. But let me just check with the owner.”

She disappears into the back, and I imagine some Oz-like character with a pompadour dictating his will to his employed peon.

“NONSENSE! Absolutely no gay hand towels for the flamboyant one! Look at his sweater for bejesus-sake!”

She reappears. But I already know the answer.

“Well, the owner says that we don’t have enough in stock to split them, but to come back later. There might be some then.”

And I just might not have the money in my pocket.

I smile and thank her, since she seems genuinely sorry.

But then I redirect my attention to the overflowing display. Then do some quick math:

Overpriced towels+Empty store/Potential customers on the outskirts of downtown=Bullshit.

I stand there a minute more, silently accusing the towels of their misdeed. But that makes me angrier.

Don’t blame the towels, Matt. Blame Oz.

So I buy some random Deco-like tray reproduction and leave.

Fair Trade?

Yeah, that’ll show’em.

***

By the time I run more errands, mourn the fact that my favorite camera shop is closing, and circle back to The Target to print off some photos, I’m fairly well pickled with resentment.

But as I take my frustrations out on the photo kiosk, muttering “No gay towels for me!” I select a photo of me and Andy from Pride.

I stop.

I take in the moment.

I own it.

So I let the pickled jar of resentment burp a little–no, I don’t fart–swallow my frustration, and revel in the fact that I’m happy right now. That I don’t need some goddamn towels to tell me that I have a boyfriend whom I love, someone who makes me want to come home. That I should stop having some stupid pity party over cheap cotton and get over it.

And I do. I grab the photos and start searching for conditioner.

“Excuse me! Sir!”

Great. Now the kiosk Nazis are going to shake me down. And I’m not old enough to be called ‘Sir.’

But when I turn, I see the guy who’d been standing behind me, waiting patiently as I’d muttered and punched the kiosk screen.

I’ll go ahead and admit I’d prejudged him–fratastic and vapid with a few pretty girlfriends (at least from what I could see blown up on the kiosk screen, from my perch next to an old pumpkin display); basically, many of the traits I associate with the proverbial bigoted Bubba.

“You forgot this.”

It’s another copy of the Pride photo.

I thank him, turn, and blush a little. And that gets me angry, too.

There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And, clearly, he doesn’t give a shit.

Wait.

He. Doesn’t. Give. A. Shit.

If he’d wanted to, he’d have tacked a smirk, or sigh, or epithetical comment after “this.” But he didn’t. Because he was printing out moments of his own life. He had his own life. Why should he care?

Exactly.

***

With bags in-hand, I toss everything onto our bed and get changed. And there, pushed against my closet wall, hangs one of the first shirts I bought specifically for a gay college party.

Not a fun-gay party.

A gay-gay party.

The Pink Party.

I’d only been out for a little while when I got the invite through a friend’s friend. Having little in the way of man-snagging clothing at that particular point, I’d run to The Target in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to find something pink.

Anything.

I think I was probably contemplating a Bratz tee when I saw the fairly ho-hum pink-and-gray striped shirt.

Mine.

Pinky

So I was prepped for the party. I was going to be with The Gays.

Somewhere along the line, I ended up on a couch with my friend, and we giggled as we watched two guys totally suck face on top of the kitchen island. (Yes, I think I even said ‘Suck face’ back then.)

And they did so without worry–like it was normal.

Because it was normal.

Oh.

But then I got tired, and slightly despondent that I’d decided to wear my battered Adidas, and left with my friend. Right before we left, though, a guy gave us each a shot.

I’d had a little to drink already, but did a little equation:

Sober stranger with a shot+Unknown party host+Unfamiliar apartment complex+Driving home=Take the shot.

About five minutes later, I remembered I’d always been terrible at math. And gullible to boot.

“Ay ThiNnnk there-uh mayuh Bin somMMmmmethinnn in Dat shottttt.”

I was totally fine to drive.

And then I drove over an entire roundabout. I didn’t just hop the curb. I mean I drove right through the center of it–planting bed with pansies and all. How my Pontiac Sunbird ever made it is still a blur.

That, single reader who stumbled upon this blog, is the reason why I never drive after a stranger hands me a drink.

Kidding! No strangers and drinks. And no drinks and driving. Alright, PSA over.

Regardless of the roofie dollop, the party was fun. Because I was out.

I was OUT.

The Out Matt.

I was myself. For the first time in a while.

And it felt a whole hell of a lot better than being drunk.

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Have Shovel, Will Travel

As the progeny of a wildlife biologist and forester, my sister and I often had nontraditional childhood experiences that in no small way shaped our interests in, and love for, the outdoors. Being highly allergic to almost every blooming plant and grass, and hypersensitive to poison ivy, and prone to cancerous lesions from sun exposure and bouts of numbness from a defunct circulatory system make me the least likely candidate to be an outdoorsy person. Much less an archaeologist.

Archaeology when it was fun

But here I am—lesions and all.

Okay, so I’m not a mass of boils. Still, you get my point. Genetically, I’m predisposed to a warm and cozy indoor office environment, not the exposure an archaeologist faces while traipsing through the wilderness, excavating archaeological sites.

***

Sure, being an archaeologist sounds romantically Thoreau-esque. But after bubbly poison ivy welts weep their itchy discharges down your arms like lava flows, barbed-wire fences rip through your pants and flesh, allegedly disconnected electric cattle fences jolt back to life as you climb them, leaky CamelBaks douse your backside with your only water source for miles, and dog-peter gnats nip at your ears, eyes, and face while cicadas scream from the July heat and humidity, you scoff at the idea that you ever thought this line of work was even remotely romantic.

Back-bending excavation

That said, archaeologists either really have to love their work to keep with it or, early on, cynically resign themselves to their lot.

I’m of the latter ilk.

Granted, archaeology didn’t choose me. I chose it.

Mea maxima culpa.

***

From my field experiences, I found a month and two weeks to be the amount of time away from home-base I could stand without completely losing touch with reality. Returning to a motel room and eating cold canned soup and beans day after day for weeks on end instead of sitting down to a fresh salad in my Deco-decorated apartment got old really fast.

Even if the motel afforded me guilty pleasures like Project Runway and House Hunters.

In the field, sustained human contact was confined to the eight- to ten-hour workday, with the closest thing to after-hours carousing or bonding consisting of field cohorts yelling “Touchdown!” or “Homerun!” from neighboring rooms, and me screaming from my room at a misguided, pretentious fashion upstart, “Tulle and Paisley?! Too much pattern!” or oblivious first-time buyers, “House Two! Pick HOUSE Two, you fools!”

***

All too often, though, the hovel serving as my home-away-from-home became not a place of refuge after a long day shoveling dirt, hauling cobbles, and troweling profile walls, but the impetus for a frantic bar search.

And insult was added to injury when I found myself in a dry county, in the middle of nowhere, as I did on one particularly memorable excursion.

“Described as ‘homey’ and ‘comfortable,’ the motel seems to be just that: stone façade, barn-red metal roof. But I should know something’s amiss when I have to venture to the front of the house-office and enter a glass vestibule. The glass reflects the sunlight brilliantly, but prevents me from seeing inside. The only thing I make out is a small sign that reads “Ring Bell.”

But then a cloud bank passes overhead, and I find myself staring into the Zoo of the Future’s geriatric Homo sapiens sapiens exhibit.

An elderly woman sits in a wingback chair, the arms of which are covered with doilies. She peers ahead to a large television where Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak grins widely. Near the back of the house, an elderly man shuffles with a plated sandwich—pimento cheese, no doubt —from the dining room to the kitchen.

And I just watch. Until I feel like some perverse voyeur.

Then, as any curious person would do, I ring the bell. A loud, long-lasting, arcane musical bellows from within, and the elderly woman rouses herself out of the chair, slowly turns toward the window, and approaches with a thin smile, out of which I can almost hear, It puts the lotion on its skin.

Once she gets to the front desk, she pushes out a bank teller drawer.

“Talk into the drawer. It’s the only way the sound can get through.”

Bending down, I yell into the drawer, and inform her I’m the first of my crew to arrive. She scans a large ledger on the counter.

“But, it’s Sunday.”

“Yes.” Pat, tell her what she’s won!

She seems surprised.

Flummoxed, I repeat my crew members’ names, that we have rooms reserved. We go back and forth until she gets it, and then asks me to fill out a registration card.

“There’s been a booking mistake. My husband took down the reservation.”

When I slip the card through the drawer, I clearly see my name printed in the ledger as “Marakey.” She pushes my room key back out.

Room 112 it is.

“It’s the one there on the end,” she says, pointing to the end unit facing the road.

I thank her, turn, and step into a mud hole. Auspicious signs abound.

I unload everything into a room overstuffed with mismatched eighties bedroom sets and decorated with fiercely disturbing wildlife paintings. My attention turns to the headboard, which features a Sharpie-scrawled, upside-down message: “J.C. loves B.B.” I can only imagine the sex act that facilitated it. And I wonder if they were at all disturbed by the stuffed wood duck staring down from above.

Waking up the next morning with a crick in my neck kicks off a quintessential first field day: we get lost; we get the truck stuck; we get drenched by rain.

Naturally, I return to find my room completely empty.

At first I think I have the wrong room. And then I think I cleaned my room that well and my stuff is just ordered in dresser drawers.

But, no.

Nothing is left. Except my groceries, which I’d tucked away in a TV cabinet.

Marvelous.

Panicked, I yell to the crew chief. He and I venture into the house-office’s vestibule to alert the owners and get some answers. This time, the elderly man sits at the front desk. He pushes the drawer out and I explain the situation.

But he’s not getting it.

“Yes, the man in Room 112 moved into Room 111 this morning.”

I tell him I’m the one in Room 112, that I still have my key, and that I didn’t known about the goddamn move. He gets flustered and says to check Room 111.

I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help but believing.

He walks over with me and opens up Room 111. All of my belongings are arranged in the exact places they’d been in Room 112. Even an upside-down cup on a paper towel had been moved between the rooms.

I shudder.

Barring the creepiness of the whole exchange, the room swap actually plays in my favor. The room is larger, less-cluttered, and doesn’t reek of mold.

Score!

***

But then we left for a week. Two weeks later, my luck wasn’t as good.

As evidenced by a few journal entries:

“I miss Room 111. Little did I realize how good I had it there. After emptying nearly an entire bottle of Febreze in this room, the mold and water stains are still laughing at me. With a gurgle of agreement, the toilet occasionally joins the other icky things in making even the most mundane task challenging.

“For instance, my shower experience was a nightmare. I cringed when I opened the door to the claustrophobic, mold-ridden shower which, incidentally, had a rusted light bulb-cord combination dangling from the unpainted plywood ceiling. I had no shower shoes, so I threw down a bath towel as a barrier between me and the shower floor funk. When I turned on the shower, only two jets sprayed—the rest of the holes must’ve been blocked, with what I don’t hazard to guess, nor want to know. I angled my body under both jets. But doing so caused me to knock into the soap-caked shower caddie. The whole caddie slipped down the showerhead’s neck, and the showerhead detached from the wall; it ripped open a small hole, out of which scurried a large silverfish that all but greeted me with, “Hello! Welcome to Hell!” When I jumped back to avoid my unexpected showermate, I smacked my ass into the nasty tile wall. I screamed.

“Now all I want to do is throw myself face-down onto the bed and bawl my eyes out with dramatic flair. But there’s a stained, heirloomed, floral piece-of-shit comforter that’s covering two stained sheets. Stains no doubt left by a Mr. Mayberry, the author of a sweet-nothing found etched into the nightstand’s inside drawer, no doubt with a shank: ‘Michelle. Love You. It Ben Fun. Mayberry.’

“Juxtaposed with the faux wood paneling, the comforter is supposed to make the room seem homey, but any semblance of hominess is dashed when a foreign pubic hair is found sticking out of one of the comforter’s brocaded rose blossoms. Mr. Mayberry’s, I presume? In order to fall asleep, I wear a toboggan, a down jacket over a fleece and an undershirt, and long sweatpants tucked into two pairs of calf-length socks. But all that doesn’t keep me from actually feeling things crawling on me throughout the night.

“And when it’s not creepy-crawlies keeping me on pins and needles–which are probably stashed between the mattress and box-springs–Bubbas keep racing up and down the alleyway outside my door, as if recreating a Dukes of Hazard episode. Four gunshots are interjected between the revving engines and squealing tires. Three in rapid succession; the fourth, no doubt, the finishing shot.

“When I wake up un-infested and bullet-free, I’m greeted by two slugs slowly sliming across the room’s water-stained, mildewed door. And, to top everything off, my body is keenly aware of my surroundings—I can almost hear my bowels rumble to me, ‘Like hell I’m letting you use that dripping, broken-down toilet, which was probably used to dispose of a fetus.’ Fuck. It. All.”

***

My contempt for Harrison Ford and his pack of lies has been mitigated slightly by capitalizing on my rather atypical job.

For one, it makes me seem butch.

Alright, fine. At least it’s a conversation starter.

“A who?”

“Ar-chae-o-lo-gist.”

“Say what?”

“Like Indiana Jones.”

Ohhhh. So you dig up dinosaurs?”

“No, those are paleontologists. Have you even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

“So, you don’t dig up dinosaurs?”

“No, dead peoples’ things mostly.”

“Do you at least wear a cool hat?”

“No. Mostly raggedy, stained clothes and boots.”

“And you go to school for this?”

So maybe it’s just a failed exercise. Still, the moniker gets people talking. Real archaeology means you’ll be hunched over your desk for hours, putting artifact tags into archival bags, or using a high-intensity magnifier to separate fish vertebrae from soil residue; all of that and then some, instead of wielding a golden statuette in one hand, whip in the other, and beautiful, buxom arm-candy clinging to your biceps.

I mean, the closest I’ve come to wielding a whip sensu Indiana was getting a riding crop to the nuts during an angsty teen fight with my sister. And she won.

Lab Days

But misconceptions about archaeology, and anthropology in general, are perpetuated for multiple reasons. Not the least of which is anthropologists’ inability to interact with people.

As professionals whose jobs hinge upon their abilities to engage people on a daily basis, anthropologists fail miserably. When it comes to social interaction, the rules we budding anthropologists are taught fly out the proverbial window during the most mundane salutation between professors and graduate students.

But I can see how it can be difficult for some professors to talk about anything other than themselves, how great and informative their work is for The Discipline, and the potential their work has to reform entrenched paradigms.

Seriously, though, guys and gals of the professorial persuasion, hear me.

Stop masturbating each other at the drop of a hat and realize that ninety-nine percent of what you say doesn’t resonate with your intended audience. Mostly because you’re too damn proud to take a few steps down from the Ivory Tower and make your subject-matter relevant for your undergraduates, much less for the general public.

***

But particular experiences did teach me one thing about interacting with academic anthropologists: mentally file professors’ non-academic interests under “Break Open in Case of Socially-Awkward Emergencies.”

This proved valuable on multiple occasions. Like when I was tasked to set up a departmental picnic and was stuck with two married, socially-inept professors an hour before the party.

Once I’d exhausted commentary regarding how great the food looked next to the hosts’ pot-bellied stove, I mentally scanned through the files I’d compiled for each of them.

“Is that a Fiestaware platter I see under that baklava?” I oozed, remembering that I shared a love of Fiestaware with the hostess.

And then we were off. Before I knew it, I’d gotten answers to the when, where, and why of her Fiestaware collection. Not wanting to completely exhaust the Fiestaware file just yet, I briefly recited my own Fiestaware’s lineage before turning to the host and asking about a particularly beautiful drugstore apothecary cabinet sitting in their living room.

And then we were on to antiques.

By the time we got to a story ending with “And so when he turned the loveseat on its side to get it through the door, the commode’s marble top fell out of the cushions and shattered to pieces,” people began trickling in and I bolted for the booze.

Usually, though, social situations involving two or more anthropologists rarely end that smoothly. Oftentimes, awkward silences last for minutes, inappropriate topics are broached to fill the silence. Or, as I once witnessed, a professor begins to shake like a Chihuahua who piddled on the family’s Persian rug.

All of these are cues to pack it in, cut your dialogical losses, and leave the bumbling bonobo of an interlocutor to hash out their neuroses in private.

***

But working outside the Ivory Tower didn’t shield me from awkward interactions. On many occasions I’d attempt to bond with my fellow shovel-bums.

I had little success.

Like when I thought it’d be a hit to sprint to the top of a steep hill, twirl around, and get a laugh out of my crew.

“I feel like Julie Andrews, like I could just break into song and collapse on the verdant hills!”

Silence.

“Well, er, I guess. If you feel like it.”

I’d missed the mark. Or my audience didn’t care.

Worse yet, they might not have ever seen The Sound of Music. But I found the last realization too troubling, and redirected my focus to the upcoming hills, full of cow-pies and horse flies.

And when I couldn’t rely on my fellow crew members to chat, jovial Bubbas, each of whom were positive they knew everything I didn’t, felt inclined to proffer said knowledge to me–the guy digging in the dirt.

Noticing us swatting at hoards of gnats hovering above a test unit, one such DOT worker imparted a pearl of wisdom.

“Ya know how to get rid of those gnats, don’tcha? Well, what ya do is reach back into your drawers, pick out a dingle-berry back there, wrap it up behind your head, and all the gnats will go to it and not yer face!”

By the time he’d uttered ‘behind your head,’ I’d thrown up a little in my mouth.

Twice.

***

Regardless of the constant trekking, intensive physical work, low pay, and nonexistent benefits, I got to see picturesque farms, rolling hills, and breathtaking views, and experienced warming sunrises and cooling breezes.

Scenery like that let me escape into myself, think about life and what I wanted. And while it turned out that what I wanted was nothing like what I was experiencing, I still counted that realization as revelatory.

Because with each revelation, each hurdle cleared, I was that much closer to figuring out what exactly it was that I wanted out of life.

And even if I fell, I could still dust myself off and try again.

Except when the hurdle happened to be an electrified cattle fence. Then, I’d just smiled through the pain.

Even if I straddled it.

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Reading the Leaves

The leaf landed so stealthily that I didn’t notice it resting on my hand until Meadow and Dave exchanged vows.

Because that’s when I nudged Andy’s hand, smiling as I did.

***

Life chapters before that moment, I was walking with my paternal grandmother, feeling the autumn breeze on our shoulders and watching the leaves glide down from above.

We’d been talking about nothing in particular when a browned leaf grazed my hand on its downward track. And when I shook my hand in response, Mom-Mau took it with her gnarled, arthritic one and squeezed.

I looked down at her, and she smiled up.

“That’s a good sign, a leaf falling on your hand. A good sign of good things to come.”

Her aged brown eyes danced mischievously, focusing not on me but the past–perhaps a younger version of herself experiencing life before it changed.

Before a lithe, smooth-talking Italian named Edward asked her out for a date and stuck her with the bill; before they found themselves dancing across a battered lodge floor; before they tied the knot; before the war; before my father’s birth; before the trials and tribulations life doles out tested their resolve; before they found their faces aging, the laugh lines growing deeper from the corners of their eyes; before their grandchildren were born; before we celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary; before his chest pains increased in regularity; before that day in the hospital when everything changed; before she said her final goodbye.

Then, as quickly as the leaf had floated from my hand to the ground, the spark faded, receding behind Mom-Mau’s deep browns like a wave from shore, bringing her back to the brisk day in which we found ourselves. To a different kind of comfort, a different life.

A few years later, I held her hand again. But for the last time.

***

So, as they exchanged vows, I raised my camera slightly and snapped a blurry photo.

Reading the Leaves

But the most meaningful part wasn’t the photo, or the leaf caught within the lens; it was Andy’s leg resting against mine. Acknowledging how time continues to unfold and reveal so many moments, each of which is but a blip on my life’s radar–an anchor to experience.

And like that moment so many years ago, I had someone by my side whom I loved deeply, whose love I never deserved–for which I never asked.

A type of love that just is.

So I let my eyes dance for a moment, glancing back through the memories, through the experiences that brought me to this moment with him. Knowing life changes without warning.

Tied Together

Knowing, above all else, there is living ahead.

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Postmaster

I’ve always had compulsions. Innocuous enough, they exercised their power through OCD-lended voices, demanding tribute in the form of exhausted light switches and disturbingly odd hopscotch burlesques across the multicolored kitchen floor tiles every morning.

And by the time I reached college, I’d shaken a majority of my ticks, and their residual effects translated to a socially acceptable anal-retentive cleanliness. It’s one thing to ask that someone use a coaster on your Art Deco sideboard; it’s something entirely different to stand outside the room in which your guests sit, reach around the doorframe, and turn the light on and off four times–only four!–while ensuring you avoid eye contact with something breakable, because it would surely tumble off its stable surface under the power of your gaze.

Face it, with the second option, water rings would be the least of your problems.

***

It wasn’t until graduate school that many of my dormant compulsions made a terrifying resurgence like a bastardized phoenix from a garbage can fire. Stress undoubtedly informed most of them. During a time when I felt I was spiraling out of control and found myself literally pressing my forehead to postmodern tomes during hours-long library binges in the hopes that their gibberish would translate through osmosis, the ticks wreaked havoc. Many times I had to run to the morning bus stop because I had to turn around to check the stovetop one more time, or give the front doorknob a fifth twist.

And then there was Time, always there, mocking me–asking me why I wasn’t already on my way to teach. After all, it was noon: recitation starts at 12:30, and it takes approximately ten minutes to get there; and you might need to double back for notes; and you’ll probably need to review that closing PowerPoint slide; that shoelace looks loose, and will probably need retying; and you’ll definitely need to check into the nearest bathroom to make sure you don’t have any lunch in your teeth–even though you stopped eating lunch months ago; and you can’t get to the room after the students, because they won’t respect you.

Clearly, it all made sense.

Flash forward a few years and graduate school is a distant memory, and I begin to relish reading again. But I still require evidence that I’ve conquered a book–that I’ve absorbed, embodied, and deconstructed it. Its ending has multiple meanings for the multiple people I’ve been through my life: neurotic late-bloomer teen; neurotic, angsty college goth; neurotic mini-professor graduate student; and neurotic, disillusioned archaeologist.

Enter: Post Its.

Post Its!

Not the big ones, mind you, but the ridiculously useful, multicolored ribbony ones; the ones that just scream to be plastered just so, their ends alluding to the meaning sandwiched between a book’s pages. More importantly, though, no one can see them. My secret obsession is safe.

Perusing book spines, potential boyfriends would be completely unaware of the Post It panoply facing the wall. If we’d become full-fledged boyfriends, and they pulled one off the shelf, I’d provide a very brief justification for the two colors of Post Its marking the pages of The Lord of the Flies. 

“Each color signifies a different meaning, I’d explain, “So please don’t remove them.”

It’d be at that point that I’d unabashedly bring my OCD into sharp relief.

It was a great litmus test: either he’d crack a smile and shake his head, or I’d get a “Let’s just be friends” email the next day. But at least Gmail’s flagging function became useful when I filed those in the folder “Close Calls of the Boyfriend Kind.” It was sort of like using Post Its, minus the associated baggage of failed romance. Little did I know, years later, I’d actually snag a guy who cracked a smile, shook his head, and stayed.

But boyfriendom wasn’t in the fore of my mind as I raced to make a book reading by one of my favorite authors at my favorite Raleigh bookstore. As Garbage’s #1 Crush queued into my iPod mix, I began grasping for something witty to say to this prolific, nationally-known, intellectual writer that wouldn’t translate as cliché or trite.

But before I could craft together something memorable, I pulled into the parking lot; I had to make a decision. Stacked on my passenger seat was every book Sarah Vowell had ever written. And each had its pages plumped by Post Its: Radio On: pink; Take the Cannoli: yellow; The Partly Cloudy Patriot: blue and green; Assassination Vacation, my favorite: blue, yellow, and purple; and, the book of the evening, The Wordy Shipmates: orange and yellow. I considered how intensely odd the tower of Post Ited books might appear, and replayed the conversation I’d had hours before with my friend Judie.

“Don’t do it.”

“Why not? I’d be flattered if I knew someone liked my book this much.”

“Because it looks like you’re a bit, um, extreme.”

“You mean insane?”

“Precisely. And you don’t have a book.”

“Whatever. I think it’ll be fine.”

“If you say so.”

And what’d Judie know, anyway? Sure, she’d earned a PhD in psychology, and had diagnosed me with everything in the book, but that shouldn’t stop me, right? Right. Plus, I had half an hour before the reading began; I could test the waters, see what everyone else had brought.

Walking in, my adrenaline rushed; this was the first real author I’d ever met. My palms started sweating. I tried to take my mind off things, so I judged others.

A woman to my right only had her reserve copy of The Wordy Shipmates, and a slight man to my left had Radio On and was thumbing through The Wordy Shipmates. I smiled to myself.

Amateurs.

Ten minutes away, people began filing down from the reserve counter. Decision time. I calmly stood, placed my copy of The Wordy Shipmates atop my chair, gave a quick I-Will-Cut-You glance at seat-ogling latecomers, and walked up to the entrance. The minute the door swung closed, I took off running to my car, ripped the books from the front seat, and ran back, slowing at the door, and walking in with the books’ spines facing out.

When I sat back down, the woman stared at the books’ colorful pages.

Cutting a sideways glance, I politely responded to her non-inquiry, “I’m a fan.”

The slight man arched an eyebrow, turned, and resumed thumbing. Then the introduction came, and Sarah Vowell was at the podium. Her signature voice was unmistakable. But I was astonished at how the larger-than-life mental image I’d constructed didn’t translate to her actual stature. It’s a little thing, but still.

Interjected between her readings were random bits of experience: emasculating a friend’s boyfriend by successfully defending her title as the HORSE champion of Bozeman, Montana; meeting Al Gore while giving an interview on The Daily Show; listening to The Buzzcocks while sitting in her Stickley rocking chair.

Before I knew it, she was wrapping up. And I was combing through my mind, searching for my meaningful statement like a bonobo searching its mate’s hairy back for bugs.

Then, inspiration.

Two women in the back asked how Sarah (we’re on a first name basis, you know?) reconciled her atheism with researching Puritanical Protestantism, the crux of her book. Sarah explained, and offered a closing statement.

“And thank you for pointing out, in the South, that I’m a godless heathen.”

That’s when it slapped me across my face: atheism, my in!

***

The signing line was incredibly long, and I thanked the universe that I didn’t have to go to work the next day. I got closer, and found myself behind the women who asked the religious question. I secretly envied them, especially when they exchanged guffaws with Sarah while she signed their books.

There’s no way I’d be as cool and collected as them. I’d probably sweated so much that I’d lose my grip on my books and drop them on her.

But then the attending employee took my stack from me, and readied them for Sarah. In the brief moments between the employee taking the books and Sarah telling the women goodbye, the employee looked from the bloated pages back to me. I blushed. She set them down.

My turn.

Sarah and I exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then she saw the books. And the Post Its.

“Wow, you like Post Its.”

I turned magenta. Cue nervous laugh.

“Hah. Well, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive.”

She opened The Partly Cloudy Patriot to a Post Ited page.

“So, what do the different colors mean? Different significance?”

Ohmygodshegetsit.

I laughed a bit and nodded. She signed, perused the others, and opened the next in the same fashion.

“And this one has three different kinds?”

“Yes, well, um, the blue signifies something interesting from a historical perspective. Purple, something I found personally meaningful. And yellow, something funny. Yellow usually marks something funny.”

She cracked a slight smile, which could’ve stemmed from horror or puzzlement.

And then she opened up The Wordy Shipmates. I wrung my hands. I hadn’t finished putting in the Post Its. It looked like I hated it. Why had I told her about my Yellow=Funny equation? There were only three yellow Post Its in the whole book

“Well, I just finished this one. I really liked it!” I boomed a bit too cheerily. 

She finished signing, looked up, and thanked me for coming.

I stood in awkward silence.

Justsayityoufool!

I smiled, turned, and took a step away. But then I figured, why the hell not? I swiveled back around, probably to the chagrin of the assisting employee.

“Well, from one godless heathen to another, thank you for your books, I really appreciate them.”

She looked up from the book she was prepping, stared at me, and cocked her head.

Silence.

Fuck.

I turned quickly and aimed for the door. I hope you’re satisfied. You just embarrassed yourself!

But then, that unmistakable voice. 

“Well, if you ever do decide to go to church, you’re well prepared. Well-equipped with all your Post Its.”

Holyfuckballs.

***

Several months later, I was in the same bookstore, with a similar pile of Post Ited books to hear Celia Rivenbark read from her new book.

Sidling up to the signing table, I watched the same employee push the stack toward Celia. Her eyes widened a bit, and she looked up at me. We had a similar conversation as I’d had with Sarah Vowell, but then Celia yelled to her daughter.

“Honey, come see this!”

Her young daughter came over, and Celia asked the employee to take a picture of us, with them holding up one of my marked books.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m happy you like them so much!”

Celia and Post Its

***

And I guess that’s the point, right? Knowing your life—what you’ve written—strikes a chord somewhere.  

Even if it’s not particularly colorful. 

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Pleasantly Disengaged

It was sickeningly satisfying to hear that, from Andy’s HR perspective, I had reached the “Final Stage of Disengagement.”

I imagined it in all caps.

“What comes next?”

My eyes sparkled at the prospects: fame, fortune, a heretofore unknown 401k payout?

“Resignation.”

Buzzkill.

Disengaged

Flirting with resignation is slightly sordid. At least in my mind. Because “resignation” is personified as Jesse Bradford.

So I keep pushing the envelope. Because I want my supervisor to ask why I’m not performing to my usually high standards. Mostly so I can tell him that his hands-off approach and piecemeal “resolution tactics” are for shit.  

Sure, I could be the better person: pick up where others fail; shield my supervisor from my coworkers’ incompetence; carry more than my fair share.

Meh.

Been there, done that.

When things are allowed to get to this point, there’s little I can do. Other than sit back and watch the ruins crumble. Preferably with a soy mocha in one hand, a pumpkin scone in the other, and an “I told you this would happen” smile plastered across my face.

And I’m completely fine with it. Because, as one wise friend who got the hell out of here once told me, “The only way to show people what a fucking wreck this place has become is to let things fall apart.”  

Before working here, I never subscribed to that sort of thinking. But it makes complete sense. And it gives me a reason to cut myself a break or two—not beat myself up over work minutiae.

Instead, I redirect my energies to something much greater than work: living life.

And I’ve been doing plenty of that.

The types of laughter and meaningful conversations I had with Andy and my friend Amanda this past weekend are paramount to my sanity. Because who wouldn’t enjoy a weekend peppered with comments regarding sweater nipples and taxidermied animals?

Especially when I laughed so loud that I couldn’t hear the protracted beep of my flat-lined work ethic echoing in my head.

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Won’t You Be My Future?

I wholeheartedly assumed tonight was going to involve a tumbler, a few ice cubes, and a splash of Grey Goose. Then again, I must’ve misread the day’s ominous, plague-like signs: a mouse, a frog, a coworker crying over the phone to her mother.

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve grown up a little.

That’s not to say ye olde after-work cocktail won’t occasionally be conjured out of a few bottles. Rather, it’s me acknowledging that, sometimes, it’s harder to whine and drink than it is to thicken my skin.

Life is messy, so I might as well get used to it.

Pollocked Facade

And adulthood is hard. Sometimes, it’s entirely overrated. But there’re times when I look around and think, “Huh, maybe I’m not such a lazy sack after all. Maybe I can do this.”

Then I rally for a short time, conquer some menial task peripherally related to this, and veg on the couch, assuming I’ve somehow convinced the universe—or at least my gullible self—that I deserve some downtime, a reprieve from the work I’ve accomplished.

But winching my wagon to a dream, and pulling it out of its current rutted path, isn’t going to be easy. And I’ll never experience a cathartic payoff if I don’t take the first steps to change my course. Unless I want to continue hitchhiking along the Bitter-Bitchy-Catty-Queen Highway, arriving everywhere but my desired destination.  

I’ve always succeeded in psyching myself out of going for the proverbial it. After all, it’s been easier to fall back on an anxiety-stuffed, disconcertingly comfy emotional cushion instead of failing hard and busting my coccyx.

Then again, the fall might not be as painfully hard as I think, and failure often has an annoyingly silver lining.

Plus, I might not fall at all.

But the only way for me to know is to stop circling the “Maybe” on the mentally-scrawled, sixth grade-style “Will You Be My Future?” note that arrives in my frontal lobe after every temper tantrum.

Better yet, I should stop writing it in the first place.