From Publisher’s Weekly:
UPDATE: look for Tango Lessons (new title!) in March of 2018. And visit me here, s’il te plaît.
It’s not yet four p.m. and not quite dark. That’s how I know our time is almost up.
We’ve been here a month, which includes the day they called the darkest of the year. December 21st: six hours, fifty-eight minutes, and forty-one seconds in the sun.
We’re into seven-hour days now, as winter begins to wane and the low ceiling above Glasgow lightens. Every year I get a little sad to see the days get gradually longer; soon the lamps will be of lesser use, and the sun’s fluorescence will be turned up to full blast. This year, doubly so. This year, I’ve watched whole days disappear in gloaming. Sunrises at 8:45 a.m., sunsets at 3:45 p.m. Pitch black by half-past four. And I will miss it.
Today, the twilight has a whitish glare to it. That’s how I know it isn’t proper twilight yet. Night is still an hour off. It’s still light enough to see the rain (and there is almost always rain).
In addition to these holidays with B. and his family (basking in the warmth of meats and meals and mince pies, pints and pints of Guinness, plus a bottle or two of Islay whisky and the wondrous fact of people who all genuinely like each other—even at the stressful times of year), I will remember one morning most clearly. A day that, even with the blinds and curtains opened wide, never quite became a day. There was just a deep, wet greyness.
I imagine if I lived here all year round I might feel flattened by this season of black and quiet gloom. Instead I’m rapt and warmed by it. As if, somehow, I might be hidden from the world back home by five time zones and this omnipresent dusk.
The world back home means forty hours a week spent in a chiropractic office, whose windows open only to an airshaft. But I’m going back a little warmer, with the knowledge that darkness isn’t always heavier than day.
This weeks’s progress:
Making my first student loan payment, a sternum-wrenching $700 debit.
Lovingly selecting (and then putting back) thirty dollars’ worth of groceries to make one meal I was craving, then purchasing instead a carton of cage-free eggs and a jar of mayo, because… protein!
Spending all day Saturday and all day Sunday at the desk (read: my kitchen table), revising chapters of the-thing-that-was-my-thesis-and-would-like-to-be-a-book.
Staying in evenings to watch Friday Night Lights (which I have already seen in its entirety) with B (who hasn’t).
Forgoing a desperately-needed pedicure for a private toe-scouring in the little tub I use to handwash clothes.
Baby steps, y’all.
As a lifelong Red Sox fan, the first thing I did when moving to New York was look up baseball bars that might be somewhat less than hostile. I made a list, by neighborhood, then set about cajoling my handful of new friends to try them out, hoping to be spared the awkwardness of perching at a bar, alone, and having to prove to (male) strangers that a girl can follow baseball without assistance or flirtation.
I washed down Hairy Monk burgers with pints of Guinness—sometimes with a little Boston ‘B’ drawn in the head, but soon that got expensive.
One year, I went splitsies with my father on a satellite package that would give me NESN coverage of every game. For three-odd hours, my roach-infested living room filled with the dulcet tones of NESN jingles and salty Boston accents selling mattresses. But what a tease; the feed opened for the first pitch and closed with the last. Cut to black. No Eck, no RemDawg, no Dan Shaughnessy. No W.B. Mason Extra Innings, or Granite City Electric’s Extra Innings Extra.
The iPhone brought me the At Bat app, a glorious model of stats and battery-draining cartoon-batter-in-a-strike-box coverage, pitch by 90 mile per hour pitch. Fastball. Inside. Ball four. I plunked it in my speaker dock and reveled in the trusty ballpark lilt of WEEI Red Sox Radio, listening to the crowd, the claps, the crack of bats on balls. I found Joe Castiglione’s nasal twang extremely comforting.
But mostly, as an exiled member of the Fenway Faithful, I went gently into that pinstriped good night. I took the grunts and jeers of those I passed while in my Boston cap. I suffered the scoffs and tuts of cashiers I paid with my BoSox bank card. Eventually I was inured. Cashiers would raise an eyebrow, daring; I would raise my eyebrow back. It was just another debit card.
I bought a tank top that read, “Real Women Don’t Date Yankee Fans,” and wore it proudly even when, by force of demographic overpowering, I did not heed its wisdom. That got expensive too. I went to Yankee Stadium, even when the Sox were not in town. I forged a maybe-more-than friendship with a man who wore his Yankee braided-magnet-necklaces in the shower and to bed. For a golden year or two, we traded stats like barbs. We agreed on mutually important things, like A-rod’s (talent granted, but) lack of greatness, Big Papi’s likeability, Joe Torre’s class, Jacoby’s speed… I told myself my love for baseball wasn’t Sox-exclusive. I could clap politely when Jeter broke Lou Gehrig’s record on that fine September night. This would not forfeit my soul—or displease my nana’s, may she rest in peace.
Some seasons, I simply lacked the fortitude or funds to keep up as I should. I spent summers bumming around Europe. A trade, an injury would come and go, with me no wiser. I’d lose track of starting pitcher ERAs. (I did tear up, however, when I first saw Youk in Yankee uniform. Likewise when V-tek finally retired.) But I always tuned in for the big games. I grew comfortable behind enemy lines. I bellied up to sports bars four-deep with my foes and clapped, starkly and loud, against the silence when the Sox scored hits against the Yanks. I urged acquaintances and friends to do the same.
Which is how I ended up taking a Scotsman and two Mexicans to the Bronx.
Thursday, September 5th. Night of the first autumn nip. We bore the insult of New York fans and New York frankfurter inferiority and settled in our seats—wedged up in the grandstand about as far as one can go before falling out the back. And there, in the gentle, late-season fluorescence of a night game, having convinced two-thirds of the assembled company (my philosopher boyfriend and his female colleague) to root for Boston, I set about detailing finer points.
“What is it for a pitch to be ‘nasty?’” they inquired, looking for the exegesis of the term.
As if the very gods themselves were smiling on my errand, the things I spoke were manifest. “If this,” I said… “then this.” “If in a ground-out the shortstop throws to second and the second baseman throws to first, then, feasibly, two batters can be out; that’s called a double play.” All of a sudden, 6-4-3. Oooh. “And if a fair ball bounces out into the stands, it’s called a ground rule double…” Immediately one was hit. Aaah. I knew better than to burden them with niggly matters like the strategies of bunting or the infield fly.
Being newly-doctored, they were fast to learn. Fast, also, to internalize the love for this year’s red-socked journeymen.
“If this hitter gets a homerun, then the Red Sox get three points!” declaimed my Glaswegian boyfriend in one at-bat.
“They aren’t points,” his interlocutor dissented, “they’re runs. Right?” She shot to me.
It was just one of those magic nights. The air was crisp. The stadium was somewhat empty (it was the second night of Rosh Hashanah) and we had landed in a patch of somewhat-less-than-hostile Yankee fans, interspersed with energetic, orphan pockets of folk in Red Sox jerseys, hooting quietly into their beers.
“Boo!” I cried, against my usual decorum, when A-Rod took the plate. “Booooooo!” my cohort cried, with joiners’ glee.
“Hey! Eeeeeeasy, Boston,” razzed the (already red-faced) Yankee diehard in the “28 Championships” hat and jacket, at which point I promised him I wouldn’t boo anybody but A-Rod. The end of the game would find us fist-pounding in mutual respect.
And the game. Oh what a game. Two scoreless innings, and then a third-inning two-run swap. A tie-breaking fourth followed by three runs of insurance in the fifth. The Red sox were on top.
My friends clapped, bouncing in their seats. “We are so going to win this!” As much as their blossoming love for America’s (and my) favorite pastime warmed my heart, their gloat needled my guts. “No no no no no no no,” I slurred at them, cross-eyed with trepidation. “You must never ever say that.” I did everything but make them perform some unsaying ritual—like jumping up and down one-footed, rubbing their bellies and their heads, intoning, “Go Mass, wicked pissah, I shall never speak so cockily about a four-run lead…especially against the Yankees.” But they didn’t understand about the House of Pain.
As if on cue, Jacoby got picked off at first (after several attempts).
“You see?” I said to them.
“Pffft,” they said to me. Lavarnway singled Nava in and Boston scored another run. But I sank into my seat to witness history’s umpteenth encore. The Yanks slapped us to the tune of six runs in the bottom of the seventh. The newest immigrants to Red Sox Nation were aghast.
The lone Yank fan in our party, my boyfriend’s colleague’s boyfriend, was a businessman. He had been trained to think the Yankees, by statistical imperative, were doomed to win. He came to life quite suddenly and started clapping. Clapping and smirking. Smirking and clapping.
“How could this happen?” They wailed and gnashed their teeth.
I smiled a tight-lipped smile and spoke the mantra—to which my dear old Dad had always taught me I should turn when times were tough—the very same words we muttered to each other after Game Three of the 2004 ALCS: “We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”
Like children facing their first disappointment, they watched, mouths open, stunned, as our three batsmen in the eighth went up then down. They clawed me—and their armrests—as the Yankees did the same.
Top of the ninth, and we were one run down. Yankee Stadium roared for Mo, who jogged in, warmed up, and swiftly logged two outs. And then?
And then. By this time, some of the Yankee yuppies in our section had departed. Little islands of us good guys tried to keep our faith above the two-out din.
And then. As if by magic, Mike Napoli knocked Mariano’s fourteenth pitch—a cutter—to centerfield. Quintin Berry (the new Dave Roberts?) snuck his way to third. Drew singled, Berry scored. Tie ballgame.
Bottom of the ninth. One out. Soriano walked, stole second. And then—as if by hand of retributive god—we caught him stealing third. Two outs. Curtis Granderson went down swinging.
Top of the tenth. The thunder of Yankee rally had kittened out into an indignant bellow here and there. Joe Girardi sent in Joba, and the rest was history. The Boston fans and I were on our feet, out-shouting the enemy. My boyfriend was hopping up and down. Mexico’s newest baseball fan was chanting, “SÍ SE PUEDE!” at the very top of her lovely academic lungs as her boyfriend glowered. Middlebrooks flew out, but Jacoby singled and stole second (take that, Adam Warren), and Victorino brought him home. It didn’t matter that Papi was intentionally walked for the second time that evening. Or that we stranded a pair of men on base. Koji Uehara came in for the 10th inning save—getting A-Rod in two pitches and Overbay in twelve. Suzuki whiffed the number 20 pitch, and that was that. The Sox had won it, 9 to 8. “New York, New York.”
They may not be as frequent, my moments as a Sox fan among strangers, but they’re there. I fall somewhere on the exile spectrum. A better fan, perhaps, would pay closer attention, from April to August. A lesser woman, however, may have given up.
I go home and plug the WEEI boys back into my stereo. I try to evoke, for two newly-minted citizens of the Nation, the ethos of the Bearded Idiots of yesteryear. (My boyfriend liked this; he’s hirsute.) I try to explain about small ball. About keeping the faith. And what it means for us to be the first team to net 90 Ws. Or what it will mean to win the AL East.
“There’s just something about this team,” I tell them, as Salty smacks a go-ahead Grand Salami against the Yanks. I tell them about a ballpark someways to the North, nestled above a turnpike, about a place where baseballs sail into the bluest night above the monstah green.
“You think this is good?” I ask them. “Just you wait until October.”
AWP spells three quarters of a yawp. Remember high school English class, Robin Williams, Whitman – the good old days when first exposure to the greats of poetry made us hop up on our desktops? (Remember when ‘desktop’ just meant the working surface of a desk?)
Last Thursday, under a rain of slush that turned to snow, my three best grad school girls and I sealed ourselves into the Back Bay Sheraton, connected to both the Hynes Convention Center and the Pru. We didn’t leave until Sunday morning.
The AWP is self-designated the biggest literary conference in the world. There are hundreds of panels, readings, signings, Qs and As, plus keynote speakers and a three-floor massive bookfair of some 700 stalls. You’re given a lanyard (sponsored by a low-residency MFA in Tampa) with your affiliation and your name and turned loose with your tote bag among the other eleven thousand aspirants and famous authors with their tote bags. I won’t describe too hard. It’s all been done by now, and very well. (Here, for example, at n+1.)
Writing is a solitary act and socializing isn’t something we as writers are particularly good at. There was an awful lot of awkward at that massive conference complex. (And an awful lot of complexes.) But it was a charming awkward. A collective effort of ambivalence. All of us all fired up and keen for literary conquest. All the women raving in unison about the VIDA count. All the men elbowing their way into the queue for Don DeLillo’s autograph. All of us suddenly certain of success and our delusions of it.
At my most ambivalent, I sat (no, stood) at the service end of the overflowing bar at Cheesecake Factory, chatting with an old writer idol who shouted at the bartender for drinks. He ordered us four dishes from the appetizer menu because he thought it was important that he feed me. These arrived on plates the size and heft of rowboats, and had almost to be stacked to fit in front of us. Eat more, he said, handing me tuna bites, Have some more of this. We ate standing up, until two barstools opened up and he seized them for us from the crowd. He had forty minutes to spare between events. We ate fast. We talked fast, across each other. He was certain I wore glasses as a child. Glasses and a yellow sundress. He was sure of this. You’re all grown up, he said. I told him I had not worn glasses. Even though my father always told me I would have to if I kept on reading in the dark. No, that wasn’t me, I said. He must have misremembered. When I was thirteen and in his acting class, I was two years below the age requirement, the lone fat kid in straw skirts and beefy tees among the lithe and drugged up fifteen-year-old hip. They wrote about condoms and cigarettes and I wrote thinly adapted character studies of Anne Shirley cast among the halfway houses of cities I invented for their grittiness. I thought this made me pass for edgy. I tried wearing knock-off Birkenstocks from T.J. Maxx. Then we all co-wrote a play, which we performed complete with the modern dance segment requisite of adolescent theatre. The cool kids in their cut-off shorts lanked from slouch to slouch across the stage, exuding ‘tude. I was the wide-faced earnest one, a blow-up parade float starfish balloon who couldn’t bend and touch her toes.
Still he swore he knew me. You were very quiet, he said. I do remember you. You were very bright and very shy. That made me feel better, but then I thought about the hotel room on the 14th floor, two double beds’ worth of girls in debt. All four of us were once (and still are, I suppose, to some degree, and always will be) bright and shy. Should I feel special because he said it? He is a celebrated author, international best seller, and all-round charming fellow. And after all, isn’t it nice to have our favorite features recognized and reaffirmed and handed back to us by almost-strangers?
It had been over fifteen years. So that was fun. A capsule review of catching up: how the Former Fat Kid went through divorces, moves, diplomas, deaths and taxes, and ended up getting an MFA.
When he left, he was a demigod no longer. He was just another writer trying really hard. He made sure to order me a second glass of wine before he left, which was both chivalrous (in that he wanted me to have it, which was nice) and un- (in that there must be a rule somewhere against leaving a lass alone and tethered to a fresh-poured drink). But I stayed and drank it, perched on that hard-won wicker barstool. I dragged my new New England Review copy from my conference tote and started reading. I let the conference roar.
It doesn’t matter who you find to validate you, be it an alumnus of the Oprah’s Book Club, a professor, a father, or a friend. At some point you have to don your lanyard name tag and proudly come out to the world. Hey guys, I know there are a lot of you already, but add me to the list. We’re all the same and somehow different enough to not compete. Be not infuriated by the staggering numbers of the literary unemployed, be infuriated by the VIDA count. Be infuriated by your own self-doubt. Write the fuck out of shit (to paraphrase the eloquent Caitlin Moran). Write like a motherfucker (to quote Cheryl Strayed). And submit. As if your life depends upon it. Send your words into the void and show some damned enthusiasm for the privilege.
That’s what I learned at the AWP.
No one really believes in your book, but you have to. You have to yawp. You have to put your big girl panties on and finish that glass of Cabernet. Alone. At Cheesecake Factory.