Corpus: Part V

“He looked at the withered, faded little flower.
Only he understood that its meaning was a sad heart as well.”
–“The Red Rose of San José” from In the Shadow of the Alamo

Como la flor
Con tanto amor
Me diste tú, se marchito
Me marcho hoy, yo sé perder
Pero a-ah-ay
Cómo me duele
–“Como la flor” from Amor Prohibido

Part V available by request.

Corpus: Part IV

“Each time the thought occurred to her, her heart beat furiously and her face was suffused with color.”
The Girl of La Gloria

“Cada vez
Cada vez que lo veo pasar
Mi corazón se enloquece
Y me empieza a palpitar”
–“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”

 

Part IV is available by request only.

SJP Sample Sale

This happened exactly one year ago…

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I’d probably just started my drive to Houston in earnest when the Notre-Dame fire started. Blissfully unaware, I drove for three hours, listening to Spotify and Audible and occasionally stopping for a bite to eat or a bathroom break. I was in a Mediterranean grocery store near my motel, standing around for 20 minutes as the in-store deli worker fired up my falafel, apparently from scratch, and scrolling through Instagram on my phone.

The reactions were of the breast-beating, teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling variety, and I braced myself to dig into the news of the latest terrorist attack. A fire. Notre-Dame was on fire. No one was dead, but a firefighter was seriously injured. Centuries worth of art and relickery might or might not have survived.

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My reaction was one of anger—anger at the self-absorbed nature of the “global” citizenry. I don’t remember anyone having this reaction when artifacts in Syria were destroyed, and that wasn’t an accident. I was sick of basic bitches, which was unfortunate, considering where I was headed.

It was in this state that I arrived at the Bayou City Events Center on Tuesday morning. I had left the motel around 7:35, passing the events center around 7:45. From my vantage point on the bridge, I could see people were already lining up outside. I knew that would be the smart play, the fangirl solidarity and priority admission worth the killed hour. I could even bring a book. #butfirstcoffee

I found the nearest Starbucks, a corner lot on Buffalo Bayou and Main Street so congested that the drive-through backed two cars deep into the road. It was the scariest thing I had seen in Houston on this trip. I made it back to the event center by 8:20 and sat in the car, refusing to take part in the queue. So basic. I lasted until about 8:30 before I joined the growing line out front. These were, after all, my sisters.

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My segment of the line shared some self-aware laughter as we converged on the end of the line and took our respective places in an orderly fashion. A woman wearing yoga pants explained how sample sales worked (she lived in New York). I gave a pair of the pantyhose booties I’d brought to the woman behind me, Size Ten. Occasionally an overdressed, painstakingly coiffed basic bitch would roll through and have to join the line just like the rest of us. A young mother approached with a baby in a pouch, and someone sniped “That’s ambitious.” But mostly, we were a diverse, normal group of women (with about three men sprinkled in).

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I’d joined the line just in time, as SJP staff in MD Anderson t-shirts began handing out tickets for admission. It turned out I was the second person to receive a number 3. A Wendy Davis lookalike walked up in jeans and a starched white button-down, and the SJP girls started cooing, “It’s Gina! She’s wearing Gina!” They were, of course, talking about the shoes, a pair of ridiculously impractical black strappy stiletto booties.

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The SJP girls walked back in, assuring us we would be in the first wave. One resembled SJP in stature but wore hipster glasses and painstakingly effortless waves. The other was fresh-faced and ponytailed, giving off the vibe if not the exact resemblance of Sutton from The Bold Type.

About this time, the media started showing up, walking the line while filming and extolling us to chant SJP! SJP! My segment of the line hid our faces behind sunglasses and a white Dodge van parked at the curb. “Come on, again? Some of us our supposed to be at work…”

Finally, we were in. At almost nine o’clock sharp, we walked through the doors. Find your size, find your table, prices on the projected screens at either end of the back wall.

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Almost immediately, I found what I’d come for: Ursula, a d’Orsay stiletto in a sparkling green labeled Meteor. Ursula had launched in the Summer of 2017, when I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Little Mermaid. Ursula was, of course, the villain of the musical, but Úrsula was also the name of the matriarch of the Buendía family. It felt like fate, back in the summer of 2017. I’d gotten so far as to place SJP’s Ursula in the website’s digital shopping cart, but ultimately couldn’t justify the price tag.

 

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Today, though, was different. The prices were ridiculously low. A woman next to me asked how we were supposed to know the price, and when I pointed to the screen where the price list was cycling through promo photos of SJP with the shoes, she spoke into her phone: “Yeah, nothing is more than $125.” Not only were the discounts impressive, but the cause was altruistic.

It was about that time that I overheard a woman tell a reporter that she was not only picking up some things for herself but buying for her mother and sister as well.

Ah, shit.

One of my dad’s favorite stories to tell of my childhood involves a trip to the candy store. I assume it was the 7-11 near the house we lived in while I was growing up, but in reality it could have been any convenience store in North Austin, as “candy store” served as a generic name for all gas stations until we were old enough to care about the other provisions on offer. One of Dad’s old roughneck/wildcatter/poker buddies was with us, and when I panicked, exclaimed “I have to get something for Megan!” and ran back to the candy aisle, my dad swears he saw a tear roll down his friend’s weathered face while he declared it the sweetest thing he had ever seen.

Family myths are chimeric, and this story manifests new details every time my dad tells it. I, for one, have no memory of the alleged incident, but since I don’t believe in pure, selfless altruism, I know something else motivated me to run back to the candy aisle that day. There’s no telling. Regardless, Megan got candy that day, and she would get a pair of shoes on this day. I texted for size and if she even wore heels (she’s about 5’9”, introduced in my high school Spanish video project as “mas alta que me”). I plucked, I gathered, and, on a whim, I picked up another pair of the meteor-green Ursulas.

Clearly, I’d stacked the deck, but when the response came, it was, “Omg, I love the green!”

I kept going back, looking for Cherry in a size 6. The size 5 was way too small, the 7 wearable but not worth the expense for an ill-fitting shoe. I was pushing my time limit and knew I would eventually have to go, so I did one more pass of the tables and found another pair of Ursulas. Except, something was different. These Ursulas had no heel. She looked more like a ballet flat with a peep toe. I checked the sole, and there seemed to be some sort of trial fitting. A prototype? They broke the mold when they made her? Regardless, she was perfect for my mom.

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So now I had three pairs of Ursulas, an emerald-green ballet flat, and a fierce pair of gold booties. It was time to go. I got in line, which only stretched three-quarters of the way to the back of the room. Shortly after I joined the line, a lone gentleman queued behind me, and as we got to talking, I learned that Brandon was shopping for his wife, who worked at MD Anderson, and his mother. I approved of his purchases, including a handbag for his mother that still sported an original price tag for $1790!!! “Normally, you should remove the price tag from a gift, but you want to leave that one because your mother is going to be so proud of you,” I told him.

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For my part, I was going back and forth about the bag, and here Brandon was extremely helpful. He pointed out the canvas SJP bags, which were only $50 and, better yet, matched the pencil bag I’d received as a pre-order gift from SJP’s publishing imprint. They were also plentiful, piled high on folding tables around the room, all of which I had some how missed in my beeline for the shoes. I left Brandon holding my place in line and walked toward what I thought was the closest table of canvas bags.

And there she was.

SJP walked out of a side door, then started the way I had just come. I ran back to Brandon, his phone already aimed and ready, and took my place in the screaming mob.

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She stood behind a table piled high with canvas bags (yet another table I had somehow not seen, closer than the one I had been heading toward) and giggled at the crowd. She thanked us for helping to fight cancer, then emphatically shouted: “Now go shop more!” As much as I love SJP, I was too shopped-out to obey, so I stayed in line with Brandon as SJP worked the floor.

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This is before I put back the purse and the Cherry flip flops, which would have perfectly matched my black-and-white-with-cherries Bitten by SJP top, unlike the Bitten by SJP brown linen blazer I wore so as to meet SJP whilst draped head to toe in Bitten by SJP (her previous fashion line).

It was like watching a school of fish avoiding a predator, except the opposite. Everywhere she went, a sea of women followed, ebbing and flowing around her tiny person. We couldn’t even see her, just the effect she was having on the room. I learned later that she had declined to talk to media, so the TV cameras and reporters were swept along with the tide.

From where we stood, Brandon and I watched the crowd and compared SJP photos, texting each other copies of the best. “She’s still here,” he said, seeing my obvious anxiety. “She’s waiting for Mandy.”

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One of my favorite visuals of the day–if only the photo were clearer.

I arrived at the register and paid for my shoes, requesting a few extra SJP shoe bags for good measure. I will never tell anyone how much I spent, but I can reveal the amount was exactly $100 higher than the absolute limit I had given myself before walking in the door. And this was after I traded the leather handbag for the canvas tote! I still spent less than the cost of golf clubs, anything with a motor, and, honestly, the original cost of the trenchcoat (if we include tax, which we did not as all the money was going to MD Anderson).

I took my giant white shopping bag, which was marked PAID in red Sharpie, and stood in the middle of the ballroom. I am pleased to report that, although it would have been terribly easy to slip another pair or five in my bag, the thought did not occur to me until a full 24 hours later. Besides, who steals from a charity sale? I was late, so late, and needed to leave…but I wanted to meet SJP. Brandon walked up behind me and said, “C’mon.” So I blame him for what happened next.

We approached what appeared to be an SJP fashion consultation, and in a shocking turn of events, got there just in time to hear her tell a woman: “I’m not a stylist; I can’t tell you what to buy.” SJP! Refusing to give fashion advice! It was refreshing. The crowd tightened, and the woman with the baby somehow got between me and SJP. Well, great, I thought, there goes any chance of meeting my hero…this woman clearly has the trump card.

SJP had been “working the floor” for a full ten minutes before Brandon and I followed her out there, but the moment we arrived seemed to be the moment she’d had enough. She ducked and dodged, I swear looking right at me once, and said something to one of the TV cameramen and then something to Sutton. Sutton politely asked me to stop taking photos because SJP was feeling a little overwhelmed. She quickly made her exit.

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Her shoes.

I did learn later that the problem was the news camera—it wasn’t supposed to be on her. You can see the moment at the 1:50 mark in this news clip. She’d asked not to be filmed.

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Possibly my sister’s greatest one-liner ever.

But in the moment, it felt dirty, like we’d failed to treat her like a human. Oh, God, it was my outfit, wasn’t it—I looked like a stalker in ill-fitting celebrity skin. I’d completely forgotten about the pencil bag I’d wanted her to sign, so it may be for the best that it was still in my purse. Maybe it was my giant shopping bag. Or any of the fifty people in her immediate vicinity. That had to have been terrifying. Disappointed and a bit shamed, Brandon and I parted ways in the parking lot.

That night, I met some friends at a booksigning. Of course I wore my new booties, golden trophies of my conquest. One of my friends, not understanding the difference between a designer sample sale and the end-of-year clearance at the local department store, scoffed at my adventure: “That is the most basic shit.”

Worth it.

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Stories About Tigers

I finished Tiger King over the weekend, despite initial misgivings about getting sucked into even more TV that makes fun of white trash. I was compelled by the way we as viewers kept sinking through deeper layers of muck—it’s an impressive feat of storytelling. This isn’t a dissection of Tiger King as art, a diatribe on what it says about our socially distant society, or a theory about what actually happened (though I have taken my own cheap shots elsewhere). Instead, I want to look at the story that kept pacing the periphery of the cage that is my mind while I watched those big cats in captivity.

The Lifeguard is a terrible movie. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I do not recommend that you watch it, ever, and the 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes will back me up. Do not get this movie confused with Sam Elliott’s star-making turn in 1976’s Lifeguard, which I’m told is sex on a stick and have added to my “To Watch” list. which I watched last night and now must admit has a VERY similar and, as much as I hate this word, problematic plot. Mea culpa. No, the lifeguard I’m talking about is the 2013 indie film starring Kristen Bell.

Look, I worship Kristen Bell. One of my biggest worries during quarantine is that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter poster of her oversized face that hangs in my office resembles what we in the trade call “a crazy-ass murderer wall,” looming over my shoulder in all Zoom meetings and online yoga classes. After falling in love with Bell as a “teen” through three seasons of network-television-appropriate pixie spy magic, her very human and completely natural sexuality was an adjustment. On top of the scenes with Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Season Four’s romp with Max Greenfield, her sex positivity in husband Dax Shepherd’s podcast and their shared social media presence have forced me to view her as a grown woman.

Still, the sex depicted in The Lifeguard is so bad, I think it might be illegal to watch. The premise of the film is that an overachiever has a quarter-life crisis, moves back home to resume her old summer job, and has a tryst with a teenage boy. It’s as bad as it sounds. I get what the movie was trying to do, a la Blanche duBois, but it just doesn’t work. It reminded me of Notes on a Scandal, which I thought was a pretty good book, but even Cate Blanchett and Dame Judy couldn’t save the movie. It’s one thing to read about statutory rape involving female predators; it’s quite another to see it simulated on screen. I honestly believe this film could have tanked the career of lesser actresses, and the fact that K. Bell signed on for this project—released the same year as Frozen—is the only reason it 1) showed up on my radar and 2) keeps crossing my mind.

This is difficult to write about without going back to watch the movie, which I refuse to do, even in the name of research (it’s that bad), but I distinctly remember the metaphor that threaded throughout the film. Leigh leaves her job as a journalist in New York because the article she had worked so hard on, the one that was supposed to be her big break, had been killed. That story was about a pet tiger kept captive in an NYC apartment. I don’t remember what happened to the tiger, but there’s a scene about midway through when Leigh is showing her underage loverboy the photos of the clawmarks the tiger had left on the windowsill. It’s heart-wrenching, but the urban tiger as a metaphor for the primal urges of a gifted child going off the rails as an adult is a bit ham-fisted.

In the end, and I’m going to spoil the movie (you weren’t seriously planning to watch it, were you?) Leigh’s story about the tiger gets resurrected and published to great acclaim. She leaves town after apologizing to everyone, including her childhood friend WHO IS PRINCIPAL OF THE LOCAL HIGH SCHOOL AND WAS COMPLICIT IN THE STATUTORY RAPE. The funniest line in the whole movie (probably unintentionally so) comes when Leigh apologizes to the single father of her underage boyfriend, into whose house she had been sneaking at night to crawl into bed with a teenager. He says something like: “My son was getting laid; I don’t give a shit.” And that, really and truly, is the moral of that story.

Here’s a palate cleanser. You’re welcome.

Update: OK, now I have to address the double standard because I watched the Sam Elliott Lifeguard last night, and it also contains “illegal sex” with a minor (although off-screen). To bring balance back to the force, here is the tiger-in-captivity scene I’m thinking of, in which Kristen Bell is very good. It also shows the different attitudes toward tiger ownership and how I misremembered a few details:

Corpus: Part III

“He was an oblivion seeker, a fucking lotus eater. I never wanted that. I was the kind of drug addict that just wanted to be comfortable in my skin.”
–Courtney Love

If I looked around my collection of friends after six weeks in Corpus Christi, I had to admit that the effort had been lacking on my part. I could possibly count Natalia, the specter of Elena, and the guy walking next to me on the sidewalk, whose name I still did not know.

As I debated whether to swallow my pride and ask, he opened the door for me and, together, we stepped into the lobby of the bank. Almost immediately, the woman at the desk just inside the door perked up and called out, “Welcome, Mr. Rodriguez! How can we help you today?”

Mr. Rodriguez, whose tattoos swirled above his collar and down past the ends of his sleeves, extended an ink-covered wrist to quickly shake the hand the woman offered as she walked around her desk to greet him. I glanced around the lobby, making sure Mr. Rodriguez noticed my get-a-load-of-this-guy facial commentary, and clocked a security guard with his back against the opposite wall.

“I need to move some money around for payroll,” Mr. Rodriguez was saying. “A few of the guys asked for advances on their paychecks. Valentine’s Day.” He shrugged.

The suit smiled, utterly charmed, and walked with Mr. Rodriguez to the teller line. “And what are you plans?” she asked, almost imperceptibly cutting her eyes at me.

“I’m not sure yet,” Mr. Rodriguez said casually, and she smiled before walking away.

“Mr. Rodriguez?” I teased almost the second she was out of earshot.

“Nick,” he said. “My name is Nick. Not that you asked.”

“You just made all that up on the fly, didn’t you? About moving money around?”

“You could’ve done the same.”

“Finance people freak me out.”

“Why, because they’re all a bunch of whores?” Before I could say anything, he moved up to the teller who had just become available, calling her by name (Bernice), making a big production out of not having filled out any forms as he pulled a stack of bills from his wallet. I took my cue to wander around, surreptitiously surveying the building’s interior.

There wasn’t much to see. I knew the building had been completely gutted in the seventies, which was one of the worst times for anyone to undergo a makeover. Still, Clara Driscoll had died here, twenty stories above my head in the penthouse, and I half-expected to find something. A plaque or a portrait or one of those commemorative stars for the State of Texas. It seemed strange to have stumbled across one in Austin, but here, where I had specifically came looking, there seemed to be no trace of Clara.

I was fidgeting with annoyance when I noticed the security guard checking me out. He wasn’t even very subtle about it, so I looked right back, which he seemed to like. I would guess he was in his forties, responsible enough to be allowed to carry a gun, but not much else going on between the ears.

I completed my revolution around the lobby and returned to the teller cages just as Mr. Rodriguez finished his banking business. As far as I could tell, he’d simply moved money in a big circle through a series of transactions, but both he and the teller appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

“Did you want to speak to Bernice about opening an account here?” Nick leveled eyes with me, but I shook my head.

“Not today. I might come back another time, but we should get going if you’re going to change before dinner.”

“You almost had me with that one,” Nick said under his breath as we exited the lobby, waving goodbye to the suit at the desk.

“Well, why not?” I said. “It’s the least I could do after being accompanied to the bank by Mr. Rodriguez himself.”

“Man, it’s Valentine’s Day. Do you know how packed everything is going to be?”

“So let’s go to some hole in the wall, somewhere no one would think of for Valentine’s.”

“My cousins have a restaurant down the beach. Do you feel like going for a drive?”

“Sure, but we’re taking my car this time.”

 

We wound up sharing Valentine’s Dinner at a beachside cantina. He waited the obligatory three days before calling me at work on a Friday, and we made plans for Saturday. He wound up staying over at my place that night, after earning Buffy’s approval, and once more the following week. The next Friday, I had committed to seeing a friend in Austin for her birthday, though by then I preferred Corpus over Austin. I made arrangements for Natalia to feed Buffy and stopped by the tattoo shop on my way out of town that afternoon. He presented me with the most serious signpost of our fledgling relationship thus far: a mix tape.

I waited until I was truly on the road to pop the tape out of its case, which was duly decorated with Nick’s labyrinthine artwork. It began with the sound of a spinning radio dial, a familiar voice singing a song that faded into a male DJ speaking Spanish, a car struggling to start, then the song beginning in earnest with the count: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro!”

I was discouraged that I couldn’t understand much beyond that, but Nick had explained to me that even the singer had to learn Spanish as an adult. “She trips up during interviews sometimes. Doesn’t stop her,” he told me not long after he found the CD in my apartment boombox. Our shared penchant for her music explained her outsized presence on the mix tape.

Friday night in Austin, I arrived at my friend’s apartment complex just in time to catch the group headed out for the night. I caught up with everyone and managed to be relatively responsible within the context. Teagan was a San Antonio acquaintance who had moved to Austin two years after me. We’d crossed paths on campus enough to keep in touch, though we spent more time together when we’d started dating bandmates. Her relationship had been much more serious than mine, but we saw each other frequently enough to have become friends in our own stead. We had similar tastes in men and music, after all. She assured me before I agreed to sleep on her couch that the person I most wanted to avoid would not be making appearance at her 21st birthday party.

And he didn’t. But when I chose to go out again the following night, I knew perfectly well I’d be running into him. The band of boyfriends had been the opening act for a local band gaining a following, and though I timed my arrival well after their set was through, I knew I could count on Alex to be skulking around the bar, picking girls off the edge of the crowd who recognized him from the stage. I told myself I wanted him to see how well I was doing, but really, I was a glutton for punishment. I watched him for a full minute before he felt my eyes on him, and I got a sliver of satisfaction from watching his double-take before I marched past him to the bathroom.

On cue, Alex was waiting for me when I came out. He cornered me in the dark hallway covered in posters, just drunk enough to be painfully honest. “At least let me buy you a drink,” he scrambled when all other attempts at conversation failed. “I owe you that much.”

I’d been avoiding his eyes, scanning the posters of upcoming gigs, when a familiar face peeked out from beneath a layer of SXSW listings. I walked away from him, midsentence in bullshit, and started excavating. There she was. She had played a show in Austin a week earlier. I kept digging until I had unearthed the whole poster, except for one missing corner, and pulled the whole thing off the wall.

“You a fan?” he said.

“You still here?” I replied, not taking my eyes off the poster as I skimmed the text one more time, making sure of the date, before rolling it up and sticking it down my pant leg, the short edge caught beneath my waistband as I started to walk away. Décor for my Corpus apartment, or maybe a gift for Nick.

“She’s playing Houston tomorrow night,” Alex said. I knew I shouldn’t, but I stopped to look over my shoulder. “The rodeo. My buddy works backstage every year.” He had me, and he knew it. I looked into his eyes for the first time in months, and we both smiled. “He could get us in.”

 

My “I’ll think about it” became taking him up on the drink, which became a few more drinks, which became leaving the bar with a group of his friends, which became doing lines of coke on a kitchen table belonging to one of the friends who was actually Alex’s dealer, which became a cab ride back to Teagan’s apartment to get my things for the 3 a.m. drive to Houston. Alex drove my car. He bared his soul to me on that drive, and if I had been in my right mind, I would have noticed that there was nothing to that soul. Laid bare, he had very little to offer, but when someone is that open and honest, you don’t leave the moment to take stock of what he is worth. You just appreciate the connection, the flattery of someone wanting to get in a car with you and drive three hours in the middle of the night, with nothing but your conversation and the entire envelope of drugs stuffed in his pocket for company.

He didn’t like the mix tape, and I hadn’t wanted the reminder of Nick, so I hid it in the console and tossed the concert poster into the backseat floorboard. Alex told me about moving his grandmother into a nursing home, how he was still in the house while the family decided whether or not to sell. I told him about my job at the mall, how I dug the beach life and had so many friends in Corpus. We talked a little about Clara—he’d been a history major, after all, once upon a time—but he didn’t know much of her story so the conversation was mostly one-sided, more like a lecture until he could jump in with facts about the Battle of the Alamo. I didn’t ask about his engagement.

By the time we hit the beltway, we were both crashing, despite the key bumps we’d been taking along the way, plus whatever pills he was on. He parked in a driveway and we slipped into the house without turning on the lights, first light rising high enough in the east to light our way. Dry-mouthed and fried, we each took two downers, and Alex tried to find something resembling sheets.

When I woke up, alone on the floor mattress, it was dark outside. I fumbled through a door or two before finding the bathroom, and immediately regretted turning on the light. The face in the mirror was not adventurous or passionate; it was scared shitless. I tiptoed into the kitchen, still not knowing if I was alone in the house, and found a clock on the stove. 9:23. And because it was dark outside, that meant PM. I’d slept through the concert, and I didn’t have a clue where I was. I looked through the panes on the door outside, but my car was nowhere to be seen. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d had my keys since Austin.

I walked around the house like a ghost in a t-shirt and underwear. As it became clear that I was completely alone, the eeriness set in. Old lady tchotchkes lined every nook and cranny, with family photos full of people I had never met lining the walls. I retreated back to the room with the mattress on the floor, which was definitely his room, though it appeared to have once been a sewing nook. His stuff was everywhere, and as I grew angrier, I felt more and more justified in rifling through every square inch. I found his stash, fairly quickly: an entire shoebox in the top of the closet. And, under some t-shirts in a drawer, a framed photo of a girl.

I considered the girl first. Easily prettier than me, no contest, but he had claimed to not be about that. I cried for a few moments, then I got angry. I opened the shoebox and poured a generous amount of blow on to the picture frame, right on the girl’s smiling face. He and I had seen a movie together where a woman mistook heroin for cocaine, overdosing and getting stabbed with a shot of adrenaline in the heart, right above her bustier. I wasn’t that stupid. I knew which of the baggies was cocaine, and which was heroin. It was the nugget of black, tar-looking stuff. This I palmed, then found a credit card and a bill in my pocket to start racking up lines.

I had worked myself into a pretty powerful frenzy by the time it occurred to me to use the phone. Just after 10 p.m., I called the one Houston number I had memorized, dialing with my pinky, the one finger I hadn’t chewed down to the quick. “Hi, Mr. Wheaton,” I spoke quickly, too quickly, and much too brightly for this late on a Sunday night. “It’s Jessica’s old roommate. I’m trying to get ahold of her. I’m here in Houston and don’t have her new number on me.”

“It’s awfully late,” Jessica’s dad said, though he had no issue accepting that I would be calling for Jessica like this.

“I know, and I’m really sorry. We’re supposed to get together tomorrow, and I don’t want to flake out on her.” There. That did it. Completely in-character and believable. He forked over the number as I thanked him profusely.

The next call was more difficult, and I took another bump off the picture frame I’d started carrying around the old-lady house, sneering at the girl’s smiling face. The line rang three times, and when it picked up, the voice on the other end was the absolute worst outcome.

I signed. “Josh, it’s me. Please don’t hang up.”

“Oh, God. How did you get this number?”

“I called Jessica’s parents. Is she there?”

I heard a mumbled conversation on the other end that confirmed Jessica was there, but that was no guarantee I would be allowed to speak to her. The mumbled voices grew louder, then completely silent, and a few seconds later, Jessica’s voice came over the line. “You called my parents?”

“Jessica, hi, please don’t hang up. I’m in some trouble.”

“When are you not in trouble?”

“That’s a valid point, and I’ll explain everything, I just—I need you to come get me.”

“What does that even mean? I’m not coming to Austin.”

“No, I’m in Houston. I—I came here with Alex, and now I’m stuck in this creepy old house and I don’t know where he is and he took my car…”

“You have got to be kidding me. Where are you?”

“I don’t really know…somewhere on the northside of Houston.”

“You’re going to need to be a little more specific. Is there a street sign you can look at?”

“I’m scared to go outside, Jessica!” I screamed into the phone.

“Hey! You called me, remember?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I heard more muffled conversation on the other end of the line.

“Whose house is it? Can you find a bill or some mail somewhere?”

“OK, yeah, great idea, let me look.”

“It was Josh’s idea.”

“Well, thank him for me,” I said as I dug around the desk where I had found the phone.

“She says thank you,” I heard her say on the other end of the phone, then louder into the receiver: “He says you can go fuck yourself.”

“OK! I found something.” I read the address to her, including the name of a town that wasn’t Houston. “Wait, that can’t be right.”

She scoffed, a patent Jessica sound. “You really have no idea how big Houston is, do you? Hold on a second, we’re looking at the map.”

“I really appreciate this, Jess.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I should just let you suffer, then maybe you’ll finally learn.”

“Thanks, Jess.” We waited a moment, listening to each other breathe while Josh did his dorky thing with the map. I tried to soften my shoulders, which had crawled up into my ears. “Buffy misses you.”

There was silence on the other line, then Jessica exhaled: “You…bitch.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Fuck, fine, I’ll come get you. I’ll be there in 45 minutes.”

“Forty-five?” I yelped.

“Yes, you’re halfway across town.”

“OK, just, please hurry. Jessica?”

“What?”

“Please don’t bring Josh.”

There was another argument on the other end of the phone, though this time Jessica didn’t bother to muffle the receiver, so I could hear every single thing Josh said about me, and then a door slam. Jessica sighed into the phone: “You better be out the door the second I pull up.”

“Yes, Mom.”

She hung up on me.

 

Forty-four minutes later, I saw the headlights pulling along the curb and was out the door before she had come to a complete stop. I’d showered and cleaned up all evidence of my presence in the house, leaving all the lights off and the door unlocked. I pulled on the door handle of Jessica’s car, also a graduation present but much more practical than mine, then banged on the window when I found the passenger side locked.

“OK, OK,” Jessica yelled at me as she automatically unlocked. Before I had even buckled the seatbelt, she started. “So, where’s Alex? What the hell is going on?”

“Can we please just go get some food? I’ll tell you everything, but I haven’t eaten in two days.”

“Hmm, I thought cokeheads didn’t need to eat.”

“Jessica, will you just lay off? Do you know how hard it was for me to call you?”

“Fine. Pancakes ok?”

“Perfect.”

We negotiated the late-night diner in silence, orders placed and a pot of coffee between us before we spoke in earnest. I told her everything, starting with Teagan’s birthday and ending with my wandering aimlessly around Alex’s grandma’s house, crying about his pretty fiancée and pilfering his stash.

“Why didn’t you let me bring Josh?” she asked. “If I’d known I was picking you up from a bonafide crack house, I would have brought some muscle.”

“Do you really think that would’ve gone well? Josh hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you. He does hate Alex. You have to admit, you have been a complete train wreck when it comes to him.”

“No shit.”

“Josh saw all that. I didn’t want to pick between the two of you, but you didn’t make it easy. I mean, you fuck up everything you touch.”

“I know.”

“Why are you like this?”

“I don’t know,” I hung my head as the waitress placed plates in front of us: pancakes to absorb all the poison in my body, an omelet and fruit cup for Jessica.

“I’ve been doing really well,” I told her between bites. “I moved to Corpus Christi. I’m going to apply to grad school again.”

“Yeah, I heard,” Jessica nodded. “How did you get caught up with all this again?”

“Alex told me he could get us into this concert tonight at the rodeo.”

“Wait, what?”

“He has this friend who works the music gigs at the rodeo who was going to…”

“The Astrodome? He told you he would get you into the show at the Astrodome tonight?”

“Yeah, are you a fan of hers too?”

“No, but the closing show is a huge deal. Josh and I were watching the news when you called. Tonight was the biggest crowd the Astrodome has ever seen. There was no way Alex’s dumb ass was getting you into that show. Sorry.”

“But this guy, this friend of his, runs the hydraulics for the stage.”

“I’m sure he does. And I’m sure he brags about that to a lot of people, and I’m sure Alex truly believed it when he promised you backstage access to a sold-out show at the Astrodome. But it didn’t happen, did it?”

“I’ll never know,” I shrugged.

“Because he drugged you and let you sleep through it.” Jessica sat back in the booth, the prosecution resting her case.

“He didn’t drug me. I drugged myself,” I said, swirling soggy pancake through the syrup on my plate until it lost all structural integrity.

“Oh, well that’s much better.”

After I paid for our food, Jessica talked me through it as she drove. “You are leaving Houston tonight. Right now. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.”

When we got back to the house, just past midnight, I was relieved to see Cherry in the driveway. I looked at Jessica. “Five minutes,” she said. “If you are not out of the house and in that car in five minutes, I’m calling the cops on both of you.”

I buried my face in my hands and took a deep breath. “Right,” I said, then got out the car, slammed the door, and crossed the street before she could say anything else.

I checked the car window on the off chance that the keys were in the ignition, but the whole thing was locked up tight. Glancing back at Jessica’s idling car, I could hear music from inside the house. I forced myself up the porch steps and turned the knob. Luckily, the door opened, and I stepped into a small gathering.

“Where have you been?” Alex called from the couch. “The door was unlocked and I didn’t know where the hell you were.” He didn’t sound angry, but it was a definite show of dominance just to say the words.

I nodded. “Yeah, I could say the same.”

One of his friends started laughing, and Alex said something low enough to where I couldn’t hear, which made his friend start laughing more.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” I said, almost wishing I had taken Jessica up on her offer of mace.

Alex put down the bong and made a big show of dragging his feet, the slightest smirk dancing across his lips. He came around the couch and finally stood facing me.

“It’s been fun,” I said quietly, though his friends were pretending not to listen. “But I’ve got to go.”

I stepped forward and hooked my hands into his front pockets. I gave him a little peck on the cheek as I fished around in his jeans, then smiled when I found what I wanted. I pulled out my keys and quietly walked out the door, letting out a huge sigh of relief when I heard him crack a joke at my expense. I ran to the car, frantically clicking the unlock button on the key fob, and reversed out of the driveway and all the way down the street until I was parallel to Jessica.

“Follow me,” she mouthed, and I made a head-slapping “duh” motion in return. I trailed her out through increasing larger tributaries until we were flying down the highway in a two-car caravan. Eventually, she stuck her hand out the window and pointed up to one of the numerous overhead signs that read CORPUS CHRISTI. I flashed my bright lights at her in recognition of her condescending attack on my intelligence, and her pointed finger became one flipping me the bird. She drifted into the right-hand lane, and a mile or two later, exited the freeway. I blew her a kiss, though I knew she couldn’t see.

I fished around in my pocket, lifting my pelvis to the steering wheel to get my hand all the way in, and pulled out the plastic baggie of black tar heroin. I figured it had been the most expensive item, gram-for-gram, in Alex’s whole stash, the one that would cost him the most with the least amount of effort on my part. I placed the smuggled drugs in Cherry’s ashtray and snapped it shut. I fished the mix tape out of the console and popped it in, setting the cruise control to remind myself not to speed.

 

I don’t know how, but I dragged myself to work the next morning and made it through an entire day without passing out. Mondays were for markdowns, which were meditative if monotonous, and the only trouble I had was not falling asleep. I got home around four and fought to stay awake as I tried to win back Buffy’s trust. We were both lying on the bed, listening to the radio, when I became conscious of an increasingly audible set of footsteps. I could recognize that sound anywhere. I hoped against hope that the heavy footfalls weren’t coming for me, that somehow they would pass by and continue on to Natalia’s door instead. But no, here they were, stopped outside my apartment. The pound of a fist meeting door sent Buffy scurrying into her covered litterbox. I sat up, took a deep breath, and rose to cross the room. I paused at the threshold, know that the thing I feared most in this world was waiting on the other side. I turned the handle, swinging open the door.

“Hi, Dad.”

Pronto Toronto!

Last month, Hulu threatened to expire Being Erica, so I used the inversion ritual of Leap Day to binge as many episodes as I could and…nothing happened. March 1 came and went, and Being Erica was still available. Is still available—lucky you!

For the day that’s in it, we’ll start with the Irish influence. Erica’s Season Three foil and—spoiler—Season Four boyfriend is an honest-to-goodness Irishman. He eats blood pudding and colcannon (even if the “Dublin” scene is clearly just Toronto with cars driving on the wrong side of the road) and beats people up for a living…or used to. He refers to Dublin as home and has the accent, although his flashback scenes all take place in Toronto, and we never learn at which point in his life he moved.

If I had my druthers, Being Erica would be only three seasons, with each of her three love interests corresponding to a single season (with some overlap, of course, to keep things spicy) and none of the product placement or barrel-scraping soap-operatic storylines (the baby Barb gave up before Leo). In a way, though, its unpolished, imperfectly Canadian sensibilities make it more lovable and accessible, like star Erin Karpluk’s crooked smile.

A few delightful details about Erica. Her collection of five short stories, Streams of Consciousness, and her poem, “Snowflakes,” are both destined for the—heh—slush pile. Her novel in progress is called Little Feats. She has a Dirty Dancing-themed bat mitzvah, with her Uncle Ruby dressed as Patrick Swayze, and nobody puts Baby in a corner…because she is now a woman. She screams at a thug, “Don’t mess with the babysitter,” (a classic line from Adventures in Babysitting with the swear word substituted), though she’s not actually babysitting in that episode. In an alternate reality, she gets fired by sticky note, like Carrie Bradshaw getting dumped by Post-it. At the end of Season Two, she has a panic attack in Camel Pose, and it is a terrifying performance. Camel pose is a heart-opener, and this scene still haunts me. Her lesson in that episode’s time-travel therapy session takes her back to grad school: “It is your thesis, your degree, your life. Figure it out, Ms. Strange.” That one haunts me, too.

As with this year’s 30 Day Yoga Journey by Yoga With Adriene, I was apologizing to my boyfriend every time he came in the room because the theme music is so grating. The soundtrack songs aren’t great either, including the very prominent placement of a Canadian cover of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” The music does improve once Sebastian Pigott (a Canadian Idol 7th runner-up) joins the cast. “Alien Like You” justifies how Erica speaks for all of us when she admits: “I have a crush on a damaged rock star from the future.” Girl. His name is Kai Booker, and in one alternate reality, best friend Judith reminds Erica that she used to want to want to “win a Booker [Prize].” Heh.

Erica makes a list of her regrets, so I jotted down a list as well. “There’s more, of course, but these are the ones that keep me up at night.” I got 21 without even trying. When I began my rewatch, I had also just started seeing a life coach and was in a cycle/return that has me reliving the lessons from 2003-2005. Erica doesn’t begin group therapy until Season Three, which was about how far I had gotten when my own life coaching moved into a group context. (Really, it’s a Brené Brown Daring Greatly reading group, but I’m getting the same level of inspiration out of it.) The group model is useful in therapy, creative structure, and life: start off solo, work to encompass others and their stories, then finally grow to a place of helping others. I’m currently audiobooking Postscript, the sequel to PS I Love You, and it uses the group model to add more stories and diversity to the same theme.

Since Canada seems to only have a total of six actors, there’s some overlap between Being Erica and a current favorite, Letterkenny. Mrs. McMurray is one of the therapy group members (a sex-crazed drug addict, if I remember correctly) and, the biggest shocker of all, Gae is Katie Atkins. (Sarah Gadon is one of the few actors I have seen outside of the context of the show; she was Robert Pattison’s girlfriend in Cosmopolis in 2012). Julianne once popped up as a ho in some shoot-em-up, prompting me to yell “Julianne, get your clothes on” at the screen while my boyfriend was trying to watch a movie, and she showed up again in Sharp Objects as one of Camille’s prissy high school buddies. As with all things Canadian, Drake manifests, and Erica gets to bury him alive in the second episode. There is also some time-traveling joke about Jenny (Paula Brancati) appearing on Degrassi, but I don’t know the show well enough to track it. At the start of Season Two, we are introduced to Tatiana Maslany, a few years before she gifted us the acting masterclass that is Orphan Black. Toward the end of that season is also when I realized Zach is the Dick Casablancas of the show—he starts off as a total creep in a small role, but after a while, you kind of enjoy the lightness his knuckle-dragging comedy brings.

Oh, man, Season Three. Let’s start with what’s problematic: Ivan and David, cutely named after the co-creators of the show, are a gay couple and co-owners of Goblins. Sadly, they seem to exist only as props. In the Pride episode, Ivan goes “10% straight” for long enough to feel up Julianne, while Erica takes centre stage during the parade as she dons a RAINBOW HEADDRESS AND GETS PULLED UP TO DANCE ON A FLOAT by a fairy who calls her Pocahontas. Yeah, no. And the product placement: a Ford Fiesta in magenta. Erica buys her own Ford in Season Four, so she no longer has to awkwardly borrow Julianne’s to shoehorn the product into scenes where it doesn’t belong. The car is joined by Tetley Infusions when Julianne decides to switch from her 9, 10:30, and 3 o’clock lattes.

Halfway through Season Three, future-Kai warns present-Erica that something happens in 2019 that makes it impossible for him to find her in the future. Um, internet archives? We learn in Season Four that the 2019 incident is a bombing at Union Station during which hundreds of people die. Erica, mid-existential freak-out, receives a visit from her 43-year-old self (2020 Erica, that is) to explain how in this new timeline, she knows about the bombing and avoids it. NEITHER ERICA MAKES ANY MENTION OF TRYING TO STOP IT ALTOGETHER because fuck everybody else, right? [Insert COVID-19 reference here.]

Also, future-Kai tells present-Adam that Ireland wins the World Cup in 2018. Why???

Finally, a moment to honor the most consistent presence in Erica’s life: lattes. Pronounced Canadianly: leah-tays. From the hazelnut-mocha-mint latte sample that sends Erica into anaphylactic shock and gets this whole time-travel therapy ball rolling to the sub-par lattes she makes as Julianne’s assistant to the latte Dr. Fred spills on the street to the endless vanilla lattes she orders from Kai to the free lattes Ivan and David offer to sweeten the rental agreement to, finally, the wedding dress in the precise color of Cosmic Latte…we enjoyed every single one of them with her.

I love this weird little show. A show somehow structured around time-travel therapy, set in the publishing industry, and flavored with two identities I got to understand a little better: Canadianism and Judaism. And thanks to the Hulu algorithm, we get to revisit our girl in 2020 to make sure she’s doing OK.

Corpus: Part II

On the shores of a small bay washed out of the eastern edge of Texas—the part that cuts its way down in a point between old Mexico and the Gulf—there drones the sleepy little seaport, Corpus Christi. The name at once suggests the mystic tinge in the blood of the old Spanish discoverers.

In chapter two of her first novel, Clara Driscoll described Corpus as the most attractive location on the southern coast. I wasn’t sure if she meant the Texas coast or all of the United States, but she was probably more than a little biased either way. Of course, in the same chapter of The Girl of La Gloria, she had also written more than a few insensitive statements about Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the facially disfigured—and that was just one chapter. When I shared this bit of trivia with one of the PhDed bartenders in Austin, she had laughed and said, “There’s your master’s thesis right there.”

A few things had changed since Clara’s time, both regarding what was politically correct and just how sleepy and attractive Corpus was. After my ceremonial toe-dipping in the Gulf of Mexico on New Year’s Evening, I rejoined Buffy in the car and went looking for a place to stay. We ended up backtracking a bit up the highway to a motel near the airport. I had assumed they didn’t allow pets, but I also didn’t ask. I smuggled Buffy’s carrier into the room with my coat draped over it, fashioning a passable litter box from a soda flat I found by the Dumpster and some sand scooped from the “beachfront” landscaping. The next morning, I left a twenty on the table with a note that read “There is no cat/No hay gato” on the motel-branded notepad. To cover all my linguistic bases, I drew a picture of a cat, surrounded by a circle marked through with a slash, and hammered home the message with an arrow pointing brashly to the cash. It worked; when I returned from the first fruitless day of apartment hunting, I found the note, but the cash was gone. Buffy sprawled luxuriously on the freshly made bed.

I had another five days before I was scheduled to begin my new job, which I had thought would be plenty of time to find a place. My day-one tactic, driving around the city and stopping at places that looked nice, hadn’t worked so well, so I’d called it early and snuggled up with Buffy and the classifieds, some old movies flickering on the television. The next day got me more looks, but the vision I’d had of a beach view was becoming murkier. If I wanted to hear “the swish of the waves on the shore,” as Clara had written one character’s first night in Corpus, I would be paying nearly twice what I had budgeted for housing.

I was mulling over this possibility as Buffy and I shared a dinner of chicken nuggets and fries. As I set my fountain drink down on the combined desk, dining room, and makeup table, the sight of my pidgin Spanish on the notepad reminded me of one of the classifieds I’d neglected. I flipped through the pages to an ad in Spanish, just basic enough for me to follow: apartamento…playa…piscina. And the universal language: $400. It seemed too good to be true, but I could read the address and had some time, so I opened out my map on the motel bed.

As I got dressed to go out on the third day. Buffy lounged within the folds of the blankets, clearly in no rush to begin her day. I hoped her lazy confidence meant she had charmed the cleaning crew, because when I opened my wallet, I found a single five-dollar bill. “You better work your magic,” I told her with a kiss on the forehead. I left the five next to the bilingual pictograph and stepped out into the sunlight.

I took off driving toward downtown, though I’d had trouble believing such a cheap apartment would be located so close to the financial district. I circled the block completely before I found it on the second pass and burst out laughing. It had been too good to be true, all right: a perfect little beachside apartment complex…with a swanky 1980s high-rise blocking the view. It had probably been a sweet little set-up in the seventies, with the gentle roll down to the coast visible from a two-story complex surrounding a courtyard. Now the drained pool sat in the shadow of the behemoth across the street, which not only obliterated the beach view but blocked the morning sun.

Still, my dad’s words rang in my ears: location, location, location. The building was just a block off the beach and within walking distance of downtown. I’d still have to drive to work, but I would probably do that anyway, since the mall was situated on a major freeway. As I sat in the car, illegally idling at the curb of the fancy building, child laughter floated from the shabbier apartment complex. It was this sound that convinced me to pull into the space marked “RESIDENTS ONLY” with faded paint.

I walked across the courtyard, where there were no children to be found. I thought the laughter had come from the pool area, but all I saw were a few scattered toys. The pool itself had long been empty; a cheap, poorly applied liner cracked and split with the damage of at least a few summers’ heat. I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked up toward the second floor. There, at the end, a sign that read MANAGER, next to the last apartment on the right.

 

Three hours and way too many cups of coffee later, Natalia and I had agreed to a six-month lease with the first month’s rent due the next morning. Newly widowed, Natalia had long lived in the building while she cared for her bedridden husband, who had been injured on a construction job nearly a decade prior. When he died only a few months before we met, Natalia had taken his life insurance and a small settlement from his employer and purchased the apartment complex outright. She said she had spent years working on the previous owner, who had been eager to off-load the building and just needed a little guidance when it came to what Natalia considered a reasonable price for El Cangrejo, which had been erected in the fifties as a seaside motel. Most of the tenants had remained when Natalia took over as landlady; they’d been neighbors, after all. She said the complex consisted mostly of construction workers living near job sites downtown and young couples still in love enough (or broke enough) to share a studio apartment.

“Are there any young families?” I had to ask as I walked out of Natalia’s apartment with my paperwork.

Natalia shook her head and lit a cigarette. She offered me the pack, but I demurred. “I started again when Hector died; I figured secondhand smoke couldn’t bother him anymore. But no, no kids running around, if that’s what you’re worried about. We have one little girl, who lives two doors down, but she’s quiet as a mouse.”

“Only one? I could’ve sworn I heard more…”

“No, just Elena. You’ll see her around—she likes to play in the courtyard, but she doesn’t bother anyone. Barely speaks above a whisper.” Natalia puffed her cigarette. “OK, so I’ll get your key made this afternoon and give it to you tomorrow when you bring me some money.”

“I can write you a check right now,” I insisted, not for the first time that day, but Natalia waved me off.

“Maybe after we get to know each other better. For now, cash is king.”

As I passed back through the courtyard to my car, I did notice that the toys around the pool were gone, but still saw no sign of any children, Elena or otherwise.

I stopped at the bank on the way back to the motel and pulled out enough cash to cover rent and a celebratory dinner with Buffy. Maybe we’d order Chinese delivery to the motel. I walked up to the room with every intention of asking the cat what she would like for dinner, but a note on the door stopped me in my tracks. Management had asked to see me. I already knew, but I opened the door to check anyway. “Buff?” Her carrier was gone, as was the makeshift litterbox which, admittedly, had out-served its purpose. I noticed the fiver and the note were also gone from the table.

I trudged to the motel office, hoping more than anything else that my cat was safe, even if she had been confiscated. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her carrier atop the magazines in the lobby, an unnatural, everlasting growl emanating from behind the bars. I’d been afraid that Buffy, at the first time of trouble, had bolted out the door into the motel parking lot toward God knew what dangers, but I realized in that moment that Buffy hadn’t willingly gone outside since the day I’d found her in an alley back in Austin. It was as though the mean streets to which she had been born were part of her misspent youth, and she never wished to see them again.

I moved toward the source of the growl and caught a quick glimpse of glowing, angry eyes coiled into the carrier before the woman behind the desk cleared her throat.

“I’m afraid we do have a strict no-animals policy,” the script began, and the tone of voice made clear that this was someone simply doing her job. Easy. I could handle this.

“Sorry, I didn’t know,” I lied, then dug in. “I’ve been here for three days, and no one has said anything.”

She looked at me with exhausted eyes. “Yeah, about that,” she said.

Dammit. That had been the wrong move.

“Our housekeeping staff are happy to take tips in appreciation of service rendered, but I’m afraid they cannot be paid to look the other way.”

I doubled down. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Really.”

We stared at each other over the counter, Buffy’s monotone solo launching into its fifth awkward stanza of audible hostility, a perfect soundtrack to accompany the increasingly unpleasant human conversation. The woman at the desk, Hillary General Manager according her nametag, grabbed a walkie from the desk in front of her and called in a request: “Lisa, can you come down to the office?”

“Look, it doesn’t matter, ok? We’re leaving regardless; I just want to point out that this hasn’t been a problem before today.”

“Excellent. Unfortunately, I will have to charge you for tonight’s stay.”

“Whatever, you’re going to have someone else in that room in an hour.”

“And damages.”

“What damages? This is bullshit. I want to talk to whoever was cleaning the room.”

The door jingled, and Hillary looked past me. “Here she is now.”

I turned to see a tall woman glowering in the doorway, her strawberry blond braid backlit by the late afternoon sun. She aimed her withering stare alternately past me and toward the cat carrier; Buffy’s pitch lowered below what I had previously believed to be the nadir of her vocal range. She raised her hand to point at Buffy, and that’s when I noticed the bandages. “That beast,” she said, “must go.”

Not only did Lisa have a fully bandaged right hand, but she sported nearly a dozen band-aids on her left shin. I quickly did the calculus on the odds, but the growl behind me, which seemed to oscillate as Lisa continued to point her finger, confirmed what I already knew. The liability of a physical injury signaled to my fight-or-flight reflex that the chance to fight had passed, and now was the time to switch to flight. I quickly signed the credit card slip that Hillary held out to me, purposefully avoiding looking at the numbers, and grabbed the carrier, which howled as we passed by Lisa. I couldn’t resist getting in the last word, so I mumbled to Lisa as I opened the door with my free hand. “You did take the money.”

“What money?” Lisa asked, looking at me blandly. I rolled my eyes and walked out.

Within five minutes, I had packed up the room and gotten ready to go, the still-howling Buffy waiting in the passenger seat. After I finally got in the car, I sat for a moment and tried to soothe my cat. As I apologized for leaving her alone in a strange place, the noise reached a crescendo and suddenly stopped. I turned to see Lisa leaning over the car. She had loosened her braid, probably off work for the day, and even though the windows were rolled up, she had clearly made eye contact with Buffy. The two stared at each other for a moment, completely ignoring me—mortal enemies across a battlefield, not knowing when they might meet again but certain that one or both would not survive.

“What?” I said, and only then did she look at me. It was as though I could reach through the window and touch her face, which, in the setting sun, looked older than I had realized.

Lisa looked back at Buffy, who I now noticed had shifted so much in her carrier that it was threatening to wobble right off the passenger seat. “She knows what she did.” And with that, Lisa turned and walked away, leaving the parking lot on foot and disappearing down the street behind the motel.

I sat in the parking lot, stunned. I wanted to process everything that had just happened, but I also wanted to get the hell away from there. I navigated to a fast food drive-in with a view of the ocean, and only after the food had arrived at the car and I’d rolled up the windows to seal out the increasingly cool air did I turn to Buffy.

“Well, what happened?” I lifted the latch on her carrier, and Buffy immediately slinked out, more liquid than cat and obviously tired of being cooped up in her cage. I fed her morsels of chicken and tried to guess what scenario had prompted her attack on Lisa. It was stupid, but I felt better talking to someone about it, even if the conversation was one-sided. By the time we finished eating, Buffy and I both seemed to be in better moods, and our next stop was a superstore to buy a brand new, top-of-the-line litter box with a jumbo bag of fresh litter. When we arrived at El Cangrejo, I took the carrier straight up to Natalia’s door and announced, “I need to move in tonight. And I have a cat.”

“Honey, I don’t care if you have a peacock, as long as you brought me some cash,” Natalia said. I paid her, and she handed me the key to apartment 215, right next to hers at the end of the second floor. As I made trips up and down the staircase with my belongings, neighbors occasionally poked their heads out their doors or stepped aside to let me pass with my burden. I boisterously greeted everyone I saw, and one guy helped me with the last load, offering to carry the giant bag of cat litter while I balanced a pile of linens and locked up the car. I didn’t have any furniture, but the blanket and pillows I’d used since college would make a fine floor pallet, at least for this first unexpected night.

As I unpacked my suitcase of clothes, Buffy made the rounds of the studio. She seemed to like the kitchen windowsill best; it overlooked the courtyard and allowed her a view of everyone who came to the door. So when I thought I heard a small knock on the door, I glanced over for confirmation from Buffy, who seemed captivated as she stared out the window and toward the threshold. I opened the door to a toy sand bucket sitting on the ground, full of small items.

I picked the bucket up by its handle as I stepped out on the balcony. The door to the apartment next door was open, so I poked my head around the corner and saw the man I’d been introduced to as Elena’s father seated in an armchair, bathed in the glow of a TV. He waved but didn’t get up, a beer can balanced on the cushion. “She made you a welcome basket,” he called. “Everyone chipped in.”

“Oh, well, tell her thank you,” I called, leaving him to his TV and shutting my own door. I turned my attention to the bucket, which, though improvised, held some very thoughtful and practical gifts—a can of soup, some candy, instant coffee crystals, a candle, a lighter that I had to assume had come from Natalia, and a pack of brightly colored cards with words in Spanish to correspond with the cheerful little drawings.

Buffy had migrated to my makeshift bed and the pile of clothes I had dropped on it when Elena had come to the door. She rolled around on the pile until I shooed her away, not wanting cat hair on every surface of my life. But she came back and seemed particularly intrigued with the black skirt I was planning to wear on my first day of work. When she suddenly took a swipe at it, I screamed involuntarily (and a bit overdramatically) as a black thread trailed behind her extended claw. “Buffy, what the fuck?”

I shooed her away again and took up the black skirt in my hands. The errant loose end was easy to find, but as I inspected, I found more dangling threads. There was no way even Buffy could wreak this much havoc with one swipe of a paw. I lay the skirt flat on my blanket; the rip in the seam was right along the hip, and though I was grateful to find the fabric still intact, I could not remember having done anything at all to the skirt. True, I did a lot of things I didn’t always remember, but the skirt wasn’t part of any of my drinking ensembles. My going-out clothes tended to be cheap and somewhat flammable; this skirt was vintage. I turned it over to inspect the zipper. A single strawberry blond hair clung to the back of the skirt, and I instantly knew what had happened. Though not fat, Lisa had been formidable, and, I was willing to bet, at least a size or two wider at the hip. I glanced up at Buffy, who had settled on my pillow and tucked her paws underneath her. She had been watching me, and when we made eye contact, she blinked slowly. Her stoic, graceful expression seemed to say: You’re welcome.

I stared at the mysterious creature until she yawned, which made me yawn as well. I picked up the skirt and brought it over to the kitchen counter, where I laid it flat next to the bucket. “I can fix this,” I said to Buffy, who no longer cared now that her part in the drama was done. All I needed was a needle and thread, and I could easily get those when I shopped for groceries the next day. The offending hair streaked through the black fabric, catching the light in mesmerizing ways as it curled. It felt like evidence, somehow, and I didn’t dare remove it.

My eyes traveled to the toy bucket next to the skirt on the counter, and I had a thought. I grabbed the bucket and started digging through it, removing the larger items and setting them on the counter. There at the bottom, almost as if I had conjured it, I found a tiny traveler’s sewing kit, halfway stuck into the pages of an out-of-date magazine. A few needles, some thread, and the world’s smallest pair of scissors. It looked like the kit my grandmother had once given me, when I was a little girl who need essentials to pack into my first purse. I’d carried that sewing kit for years, even using it a couple of times on trips in high school, but by the time I got to college I was less concerned with appearing responsible and put-together. Besides, ripped jeans and clothes with holes were in, so who would want to patch them?

Still, the knowledge came back to me so quickly that nobody but me (and Lisa) would ever know the skirt had a busted seam. By simply cinching the loose threads, tying off the ends, and making a fresh set of stitches in the gap, I undid the damage and felt a weird rush of self-esteem. I’d done something constructive for once. It hadn’t been hard, but it felt meaningful. I hung up the skirt and, as a final flourish, pulled the long strand of hair off the backside. “Buff, do you want to a trophy from your vanquished foe?” Buffy barely budged when I removed her collar, but as I twisted the hair around the metal clasp, making a kind of sheath, she cracked on eye open to watch. I secured the ends of the hair with a dab of clear nail polish and fell asleep waiting for it to dry.

 

“Now who is Clara Driscoll?”

Jenny and I had just taken our seats in the food court, two trays of pizza and sodas between us. We were on our Saturday lunchbreak, which was really no break at all, the way the mall filled up with shoppers. I much preferred Sundays, when the mall didn’t open until 12. But we had thirty minutes to get out of the store and find some food, so greasy pizza and screaming kids it was.

I’d been at the Corpus store for a few weeks, and Jenny was the only person I had anything in common with. She was age appropriate, and she sometimes made work fun: mostly by making fun of customers, which got a little too mean-spirited sometimes. I usually just laughed and tried not to get sucked into it, but that didn’t always work. Still, Jenny was the closest thing to a friend I had, so I wasn’t about to alienate her with my condescending Clara Driscoll lecture, usually reserved for impressing academics and one-upping Austin girls who claimed to be “artsy.”

“She was born here and wrote a couple of books.” I bit into my pizza, crust first, and ignored the weird look from Jenny. “She saved the Alamo from a bulldozer.”

“Did she chain herself to the bulldozer?” Jenny folded her pizza lengthwise, after soaking up the grease with a napkin.

“No, but her friend did chain herself to the building…although they weren’t really friends at that point.” I shrugged. “It’s a long story, which is why I think I should study it.”

“I’m glad to be done with school. Why would you want to go back?”

I chewed for a moment as I admitted something to myself. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” I said after I swallowed the dry lump of dough.

“Good for you. I did fine in school, but I just never wanted to be there.”

We finished and took our leisurely time getting back to the department store. Along the way, we stopped at a giftshop for alternative middle-class kids, full of smartass t-shirts and lava lamps. We both giggled at the sight of an elaborate figurine: two skeletons on a bed, as though they had died mid-coitus. Or perhaps it was skeleton love? Either way, the plastic sculpture was goofy but weirdly titillating, like finding a friend’s parents’ porn, and I wandered over to the other side of the story to avoid staring at it like a teenage boy. I picked up a pack of tarot cards and started reading the instructions on the back.

“You can’t buy those.” Jenny had followed me and was now speaking uncomfortably close to my ear.

“I wasn’t going to,” I protested, putting down the cards.

“Good,” she said, picking them up. “You can’t buy your first deck of tarot cards.”

“What makes you think it would be my first?”

“You were reading the instructions, nerd.” We both laughed. I was relieved to break the tension, though the sight of the sexy skeletons over Jenny’s shoulder still unnerved me. “You’re supposed to steal them.” She dropped her voice lower for this last part.

“We can’t steal from the mall; we work here,” I told her, brushing past on my way out of the store. We were about to be late anyway, and the juvenile delinquent behavior only entertained for so long. Maybe she was younger than I thought.

“Anyway,” Jenny said as she caught up with me, speaking as though she’d never missed a beat in the conversation I’d walked away from, “I can take you to a better place downtown that has all that stuff. Maybe you won’t mind stealing from them.” She stuck out her tongue at me as we crossed into the makeup counters of the department store. The perfume spritzers knew us by sight and lowered their weapons, but more than one had overhead what she said.

“Shut up, Jenny,” I replied, splitting off from her toward my section of the store.

She was back at the end of the day, her shift ending thirty minutes before mine. “Come on, what else are you going to do on a Saturday night?”

“Hang out with my cat,” I grumbled, and it was true. That was all I had planned.

“Don’t you want to see the real Corpus Christi? Isn’t that what your ghost lady would want?”

I continued folding jeans in silence, but she was right. It was almost February and all I’d seen of Corpus was the mall and my apartment. I hadn’t even been back to the beach since the first night.

“Fine, but you’re driving.”

Twenty minutes later, I met her out in the parking garage, her hand-me-down Corolla waiting just outside the doors. We took a circuitous route along the seawall before arriving at a curiosity shop.

“Jenny, they’re closed,”

“Well, how was I supposed to know? I swear, working Saturday nights has me so messed up. Do you want to get a drink anyway?”

“Why not,” I said, and Jenny drove around for a bit until she found street parking near a string of bars.

 

I realized, sometime between pool and karaoke, that I hadn’t had a drink since I’d moved to Corpus. When I shared this epiphany with Jenny, she ordered us some shots, convincing a few young men near the bar to join us and pay for the round. It was coming off the backspin of that vodka-based, psychedelic-colored mistake that I decided I needed some air, regardless of what our gentlemen patrons felt they were owed. I bummed a cigarette, realizing as I took the first drag lit by a borrowed flame, that I hadn’t had a cigarette since I’d moved to Corpus either. The drinking and smoking had kind of gone hand in hand, and I hadn’t even seen a hard drug since I’d left Austin.

I contemplated this as I paced the sidewalk to stay warm, my business-basic work clothes—now slightly disheveled going-out clothes—too lightweight for the chilly evening. I stopped to look in the window of a tattoo studio when a set of tarot-inspired specs caught my eye, reminding me of the fool’s errand that had brought us out tonight. I could have been home with my cat. I was cursing Jenny when, to speak of the devil, she came out of the bar and yelled my name.

“Why did you leave? Those guys are buying us another round.”

“Frat boys do nothing for me.”

“Your loss, then. I’ll have more to choose from.”

“That’s fine, Jenny. I’m going in here to see if I can call a cab. Don’t get raped.”

Jenny yelled as I opened the door of the tattoo studio: “She needs a tattoo that says bitch!”

A tattoo artist and his customer in a chair looked up at me, nonplussed, as I shut the door behind me. They had clearly seen this kind of thing before, and probably much-worse behavior in the busy summer months. The artist went back to touching up the guy’s arm, but a voice to my right asked, “Friend of yours?”

A third guy sat behind the counter in the lobby area, half hidden next to a desk set-up wedged behind the shop window

“Can I use your phone? I need to call a cab.”

“Over here,” he said, standing up and motioning toward his chair. “Numbers are stuck to the wall.”

As I made my call, I surveyed the shop and the three dudes in it. The first, the customer, was old enough to be my father and potbellied. The second, the guy tattooing him, would have been just my type a year earlier—a skinny white guy with tattoos and piercings and a greasy blond hairdo that parted right up the middle and flopped into ear-skimming waves on either side of his face. Even his face, so full of apathy, set off a habitual reflex. I started fingering my hair in an almost absentminded attempt to get his attention. Not wanting to be too obvious, I continued to scan the room, and my gaze landed on the third guy, who was watching me with a bemused expression as he counted cash.

“Yep, fifteen minutes, thanks,” I repeated into the phone. I hung up, then turned back around. Nobody was looking at me. “Mind if I wait in here?”

“Not at all,” the off-duty artist said, “but we close at midnight.”

As if on cue, the buzzing stopped, and the other artist made one final blot of the customer’s touch-up. I busied myself with the specs on the walls. As they closed up shop around me, I caught glimpses of the guy that I hadn’t initially noticed. He had a shaved head, which I normally considered off-putting, and at first glance appeared to boast fewer tattoos than his compatriot. I soon realized that his tattoos were astonishingly detailed, almost geometric in their growing patterns, as though he were constantly practicing minute details on his own skin. As he turned to load the cash drawer in a giant gun safe behind the desk, I read the words HECHO EN MEXICO stamped in copperplate on the back of his neck.

“That’s funny,” I said when he turned around to face me again. I made a hooking motion with my pointed finger to indicate what I meant, then awkwardly tapped my own shoulder when he didn’t seem to understand. “Because everything is hecho en Mexico these days…”

He half-smiled and nodded, then glanced out the window. “Cab’s here.”

“Oh, well, thanks for your phone,” I said, but he just nodded without looking up from the bundle of receipts in his hands. The other guy had disappeared somewhere to the back of the building.

I walked out the door to just in time to see Jenny climbing into my cab with one of the guys from earlier. I had no idea which one it was. I pounded on the driver’s window, but he had turned back to whatever Jenny was saying in the backseat, then waved me off as he put the car in drive. Jenny, leaning across the lap of her new friend, knocked on the backseat window and gave me the finger. I did the same, an ineffectual punchline that got a good laugh out of the people on the street who witnessed our little scene.

“Someone took my cab,” I said as I walked back into the tattoo studio.

“Yeah, I saw,” he said, chuckling as he flipped off the black lights in the window.

“Can I borrow your phone again?”

“Yeah, I can wait here with you. Or I can just drive you. It would be a lot quicker.”

I hesitated, wondering if I should just walk.

“Look, if I try anything, you’re on every camera in this place.” He pointed to each corner of the building, mounted with cameras aimed at the door, the cash register, and out the window. My evening had been well documented. “It’s not worth losing my job.”

“What happened to the other guy?”

“Gone for the night,” he said. “I get to lock up, but if you can wait five minutes, I’m parked in the back.

“OK, then. Thank you. I won’t distract you.”

I busied myself with the specs on the walls again, finding familiar symbols from the card game Elena had slipped into my welcome basket. He caught me looking.

“You ever play?”

“Lotería? A few times in Spanish class.”

“You ready to go?”

“You sure you don’t mind?”

“Nah, my night’s just getting started.”

His vehicle looked like a souped-up station wagon. I read the words Ram Charger before crawling into the passenger door. The ram theme repeated with the giant hood ornament that tracked the center of every road he took. In five minutes, we were pulling up to El Cangrejo.

I looked at Cherry’s empty parking spot and it finally registered. “Shit! My car is still at work.”

“Where do you work?”

“At the mall.”

“I mean, I can take you, but do you think you’re OK to drive it back?”

“Probably not, seeing how my luck is going tonight. At least I’m off work tomorrow.”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“Miata.”

“Hmm, what color?”

“Cherry red.”

“Flashy. Think it’ll be ok overnight?”

“She’ll be fine. Round-the-clock security in the parking garage.”

“Tell you what—I’ll swing by when I wake up and see if you still need a lift. Sometime around ten.”

I turned to look at him in the dark.

“And if you’re not here or you don’t want to come out, that’s fine too,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“OK,” I said. “I think that will work.”

“So I might see you in the morning,” he said.

“Sure.” I climbed out of the Ram Charger and waved up at him as a I shut the door. Only after it slammed did I realize that I didn’t know his name.

 

I woke up early, but not too early, and spent my post-shower prep time peeking through the blinds every few minutes to look for the Ram Charger. Around 10, I finally just went outside, borrowing Natalia’s outdoor smoking chair to sit on the balcony. While I waited, I flipped through my notebook of Clara Driscoll notes.

There were some morbid aspects to both her writing and her career. She went to French finishing school, and her mother died during their post-graduation grand tour of Europe. She accompanied her mother’s body on the ship home at the age of 17, then bought the Alamo with her father’s money at 22. She wrote two novels and the story and lyrics for a Broadway musical, all the while engaged in a legal battle over the Alamo buildings with her former ally in saving the land, Adina de Zavala. She calmed down a bit as she aged, building Laguna Gloria, getting involved in the Democratic Party, and accompanying her husband on his ambassadorship to Chile. They divorced after thirty years of marriage, and Clara moved back to Corpus, where she built a hotel in honor of her dead brother, her last relative. When she suddenly died in the hotel’s penthouse at the age of 64, her body was moved to the Alamo to lay in state.

Her novels, too, were full of Tex-Mex folklore and some downright spooky shit. Reading her, I learned of la lechuza, a malicious female spirit that took the form of an owl to torment humans. Disembodied voices, generational curses, and some astonishingly racist language showed up in nearly every chapter of her stories. She clearly had a deep desire to explain the heritage of south Texas, especially the fact that many Mexican families had been on the land longer than the land had belonged to the United States, but terms like “swarthy Mexican” could be distracting.

I’d been wrestling with the argument that “it was a different time” with increasing levels of difficulty as I read up on the life and works of Clara Driscoll. If she had been so eager to share the stories of real Texans of all colors, but got in a huge public fight with a former friend of notable Mexican descent, how closely could she have been listening…and was it more than a little self-serving?

In my most frighteningly sober moments, I wondered if striving to research this at an academic, career-advancing level made me culpable as well.

Natalia swung open her door and stepped out into the sunlight. Before I could get up, she lit a cigarette, taking a loud and luxurious drag, and blew the smoke at me as she spoke: “Whoever you’re waiting for, honey, he ain’t coming.”

I checked my Swatch, and sure enough, it was past 10:30. “Have you been checking on me this whole time? I’ll get out of your chair.”

She pressed a hand lightly on my shoulder to imply that I needn’t bother, but she reached past me to flick the end of the cigarette into her clay ashtray. The rudimentary attempt at a seashell, which more closely resembled something out of Beetlejuice, swallowed the ash into its gaping maw. I had never once seen her empty it, but I felt confident that it would survive a hurricane, not only remaining intact but also anchoring down the cheap plastic table upon which it rested.

“I named her Audrey,” Natalia said, noticing my fascination with the objet d’art. “She looks like the man-eating plant from that movie.”

Little Shop of Horrors,” I said, trying not to scan the horizon for Ram Chargers. “It was actually based on a Broadway musical.”

“Which was actually based on a movie from the sixties.” Natalia looked at me pointedly. “You don’t have to know everything all the time.”

The words comprised a condemnation, but they were delivered as a statement of fact. I let them sink in, uncomfortable as it was to do so.

“Where’s your car?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette toward my empty parking space.

“Still at work. I went out with a friend and didn’t need to drive.”

“All right. Let me put on a bra, and I’ll take you.”

 

Twenty minutes in Natalia’s car guaranteed I would never smoke again, but the trip through Whataburger opened new horizons for me. Natalia introduced me to the taquito, screeching into the parking lot sideways to make sure we made the 11 a.m. cut-off. I watched in fascinated horror as she juggled the breakfast taco, her Styrofoam cup of coffee, and a cigarette. Somehow, with all this going on behind the wheel, we made it to the mall’s parking garage without incident. After waving her goodbye, I drove to a bookstore while eating my taquito. I stopped in the Texas History section first, a habit I’d developed as my interest in Clara grew, then asked for help finding a tarot guide. I assumed the spirits would allow me to at least purchase a guide, but I flipped through the pages to double check that it wouldn’t curse me.

Back at El Cangrejo, I ignored the slight flickering of hope that I would find a note on my door or even a Ram Charger parked on the street. I barricaded myself in my apartment with the boombox tuned to the radio station I’d grown fond of. Reading up on the tarot, I learned that each deck carried energy and could be cleansed with crystals or sunlight. Jenny had been half right, but the vibes off a stolen deck didn’t seem all that conducive to peace and prosperity. I also read about daily draws of a single oracle card, which could be helpful in giving shape to the day: one symbol to focus on, with all the connections it may conjure.

I was feeling homey enough to finally cook the can of soup Elena had provided in my welcome basket. It was plain old tomato soup, but the comfort of a grilled cheese was tempting and well within my culinary grasp. I grabbed the can from the basket where it had remained on the kitchen counter, a lonely little centerpiece to my sad dinners for one. The pack of cards lay underneath the soup can, forgotten. I untwisted the little girl’s elastic hair tie that held the deck together and spread the cards in an arc across the counter. These cards were completely out of order, but I was willing to bet they had good energy. I’d caught glimpses of Elena playing sometimes, out in the courtyard where Buffy could watch her with fascination from the kitchen window. The child seemed kind, if painfully shy; just that morning I had observed her rescuing and rerouting a snail while I waited for the date that never came.

I gathered the cards back up and knocked on them three times, which was supposed to wake them up, then shuffled the deck to the best of my ability. Since some of the cards were facing up, I turned my head and looked away as I split the deck, recombined it, and drew the first card off the top. Gingerly and without looking, I lay the card flat on the counter, took a deep breath, and opened my eyes. I laughed out loud when I saw it was facedown. Now I got to decide whether to flip it vertically or horizontally. I made up my mind when Buffy entered the kitchen, stopping next to the counter to meowing at me for dawdling with her dinner. I hooked a nail under the card and flipped it horizontally in Buffy’s direction.

The card showed a bloody, anatomically correct heart, shot through with an arrow and facing away from me: el Corazon, reversed. “Well, that’s accurate,” I said aloud to Buffy, tracing the valves and arteries in the illustration, my finger stopping to rest on the single drop of blood falling from the tip of the arrow. As I said it, I realized I had been thinking of the guy in the Ram Charger, and not the guy who’d dragged my heart all over Austin. It still hurt, but I guessed it was progress.

 

“That singer you like was just here,” my mom said. I hadn’t bothered to set up a phone in my apartment, so I let my mom call while I was at work. I could really only listen and occasionally communicate some news about my life in a hushed tone, but I would sometimes have to say something like “I’m sorry, we are sold out of that item,” or “Of course, please bring your receipt with you for a full refund.” Even when I had to put her on hold, my mom was a champion chatter, picking up again right where she left off in the relaying of crucial San Antonio gossip. I learned which of my high school friends had received plastic surgery for their college graduation presents, as well as the latest round of engagement and/or pregnancy announcements.

“She played the grand opening of the Hard Rock Café. I read about it in the paper.”

I was barely listening, running through inventory numbers in someone’s illegible handwriting, but couldn’t stop myself from murmuring “We have a Hard Rock Café?” into the receiver.

“On the River Walk! I heard they have all sorts of memorabilia on the walls, even from movies, too, not just rock and roll.”

I winced at the term “rock and roll” but kept quiet as a manager glided past, giving me her frosty-best tight-lipped smile.

“Did you know she has a fashion line? Sharon told me she has a boutique on Broadway.”

“She’s got one here, too,” I mumbled, though it was news to me that there was a second location in San Antonio. “Roses on everything.”

“Speaking of roses, any plans for Valentine’s Day?”

She’d slipped it into the conversation so expertly and casually that I didn’t even think to defend myself against her prying. The word “no” was out of my mouth before I caught up to what she was doing: this was her way of asking if I was seeing anyone. She’d manipulated the entire conversation to catch me unawares. She was that good.

“Oh, what a shame. Why don’t you come home for a few days?”

“Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with. Thank you. Goodbye.”

I evoked our code for when I could no longer safely talk and hung up. I’d never cried wolf before, but I just had to get off the phone. Her words haunted me for the rest of my shift—not the ones about Valentine’s Day, but the idea of going home for a bit. Of course, she meant home to San Antonio, but I was thinking of spending a weekend in Austin.

“There’s no shame in not having Valentine’s plans, right?” I said to the husband waiting in a chair outside the dressing room. I was looking for commiseration, but he was asleep. His wife had used her special day to score a shopping trip, and she had chased each of us out of the dressing rooms twice with her phantom screams from behind the closed door.

Besides, I did have plans. In my Clara Driscoll research, I’d learned about an underground tunnel that ran under what Corpus Christians referred to as “the bluff.” As far as I could tell, it was a small hill in the middle of downtown, but the difference in elevation was enough that most people used it as a landmark. Though closed to the public, one tunnel exit opened into the basement of the building that had once been the Robert Driscoll Hotel.

After she’d moved back to Corpus, divorced, and resumed her maiden name, Clara had constructed the Robert Driscoll Hotel. At twenty stories, it had been the tallest building in town, made even taller by its placement on the bluff, and it boasted air conditioning. Clara had taken up residence in the penthouse, which was where she died in 1945.

In 1974, the hotel was turned into a bank. It received a new façade, but the original structure remained intact. To me, that gave the building a Ghostbusters vibe, as though Clara’s spirit were still very much calling the shots from the top-floor rooms where she allegedly threw wild soirees. Her mad cap final years in Corpus appealed to me, and I wanted to get into that building more than anything.

I’d read about the tunnel in the local paper, which Natalia occasionally abandoned on the balcony, securing it beneath Audrey the Ashtray until she came out for her next smoke break. Natalia had remembered when the tunnel was first closed, and how she’d been warned against walking down there as a young woman.

Leaving work that afternoon, I headed downtown and parked the car in the shadow of the bluff, not far from the tattoo shop, an area I’d been avoiding for weeks. After some aimless wondering, I found the tunnel entrance, which was locked behind iron bars. Rumors of drug deals, graffiti, and “hippies” had surrounded the closure, but the tunnel had also fallen into disuse when the shoppers abandoned “uptown”—meaning up on the bluff—for the strip centers, and, in 1980, the mall.

The tunnel had been around since 1929, and staring into the cavernous abyss, I wandered about speakeasies and bootleggers. By the time Clara opened the Driscoll Hotel in 1942, booze was once again legal, and the public tunnel was extended to reach a bar in the newly constructed hotel’s basement. From that club, called the Deep Six, a spiral staircase led up into the hotel. I’d found a few old black-and-white pictures of the tunnel, but I desperately wanted to get in and look around

I pressed my face against the iron bars, straining to see as far as I could along the pedestrian walkway. I had half-convinced myself that I could see a flickering light around a slight bend in the tunnel, just far enough out of sight to be certain. I felt a slight poke between two ribs and jolted, rattling the iron bars.

“What are you doing?”

I turned, rearranging the keys in my hand to jut out of my fist like brass knuckles but only managing to get one sticking out like a prong. I need not have bothered; it was the guy from the tattoo shop. “Don’t touch me,” I snapped anyway.

“Right, sorry,” he said, backing away a few steps and putting his hands where I could see them. “Didn’t mean to scare you, but what are you doing?”

“I just,” I shrugged, opening my hand and letting the keys jingle, “wanted to see the tunnel.” I stole another look over my shoulder. Whatever flickering light I’d thought I’d seen had been startled away by my rattling the iron bars. “What are you doing here?”

“I work down here, remember?”

“Yeah, of course I remember, but what are you doing right here?”

“I’m on a break. Saw some chick acting strange in the park, saw your car parked on the street, put two and two together.”

“How do you know my car?”

“You told me—come on, you weren’t that drunk. That night I drove you home.”

“Thanks for following through, by the way. My landlady had to give me a ride the next morning.”

“Yeah, sorry. It was noon before I woke up. I did come by for about five minutes, but I didn’t know which apartment was yours, and I think I was starting to scare the little girl by just waiting in the car.”

“Elena?”

“Playing out by your empty pool? Probably.”

“OK, I believe you.”

“Well, thank you. Now, what are you really doing?”

We’d started walking back toward the street, and the horizon opened up again. We could see the tops of the buildings on the bluff, so I pointed to Clara’s. “I’m obsessed with that building.”

“Why?”

“The lady who built it is kind of a project of mine.”

“So why the tunnel? That thing has been closed for as long as I’ve been alive.”

I told him about the basement bar and the tunnel entrance as we walked slowly toward my car.

“Just go in the front door,” he said, shrugging.

“I want to see parts of the building that aren’t necessarily open to the public.”

“You’ve got to start somewhere. Just walk in.”

“It’s a bank now, and I don’t have an account there.”

“I do.”

How Messed-up am I?

A few months ago, I took three friends to see Heathers: the Musical. I was really excited because I loved the movie and wanted to see how the dark humor would translate into song form. It wasn’t until we arrived at the theatre, with the movie playing in the foyer, that I learned that none of the people I had invited had ever seen the movie. It went downhill from there, and I was lucky to get them to even come back to our seats after intermission. At our wine bar postmortem, I agreed that perhaps the black comedy did not translate into singing and dancing, then found myself reading articles about how the movie itself is more than problematic. It led to me to wonder…is there something wrong with me that I love movies like Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Jawbreaker?

Because I genuinely thought we were all in on the joke. It was Mean Girls ad absurdum, right? If the popular girls at Westerburg High are murdering each other with Drano and Regina George runs out in front of a bus, then surely the petty dramas happening at my school couldn’t be taken seriously. We actually had one of those “all sophomore girls report to the gymnasium for an intervention” meetings at my school, except it took place in the counselor’s office and only included the mean and popular girls, so there was none of the democratic, kumbaya equality of “look, the field hockey girls have problems too!”

When I read Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker piece on how Drop Dead Gorgeous bombed critically but is possibly her favorite movie, I felt so validated. I’d loved it too, and I can remember watching it in my freshman dorm with a bunch of other girls. I’m going to have to bow to Jia here, because she’s just that good: “The black comedy of Drop Dead Gorgeous is guided by a deranged value system that’s particular to the world of teen-age girls…But what Drop Dead Gorgeous understands so well is that being a teen-age girl is, in fact, deranged and dehumanizing and frequently unsubtle.” See?

Finally, Jawbreaker, with it’s breakout role for Judy Greer, one of our most consistently underrated comedic actresses. And let us not forget the Noxzema Girl! Her very existence on magazine pages throughout the 90s was probably the single worst contributing factor to my insecurities about my skin. And hair. Jawbreaker is arguably the most messed up of the three (Marilyn Manson’s cameo), but it also has Pam Grier.

Because I’m tired and struggling to finish here, I just followed the Wiki links and confirmed another name for what I’m talking about is “gallows humor.” One of the oldest and best examples finds Mercutio making a bad-pun dad joke after he is mortally wounded by Tybalt (setting into effect the entire tragic chain of events):

“…ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
[He dies, offstage, but not before cursing everyone.]

Corpus

Part I

On New Year’s Day 1995, sometime well into the afternoon, I finally rolled out of bed and got on the road. I’d spent the week between Christmas and the end of the year packing, escaping the family gathering before the wrapping paper had been ritually stuffed into a black trash bag, leaving my cat with my parents, and holing up in my apartment for a week to “bid farewell to Austin.” I’d partied hard for New Year’s Eve but ended up going home alone. All my things were in my car, the beloved 1993 Miata, a college graduation present that had been intended to signal my arrival at full-fledged adulthood.

Instead, starting with that May 1993 graduation ceremony, I’d taken a year off to “find myself.” When Kurt Cobain died in the spring of 1994, I used it as an excuse to extend my sabbatical. In reality, all of my grad school applications had been rejected, but the loss of a seminal generational talent was enough justification for me to avoid moving on with my life. I was engulfed in the wave of self-pity that washed out of Seattle, and by the time it crested in Austin early that summer of ‘94, I was primed for the watered-down versions of Nirvana that propagated in the brackish tide pools along Sixth Street. One particular Cobain wannabe gave me plenty to think about in my idle hours.

The archiving internship I’d been using to avoid getting a real job meant I spent a few days a week reading old news stories and occasionally helping to unearth a relic for an exhibit that rearranged the archive’s holdings in a new, fresh, lucrative way. Mostly, though, I was bored, and the obsession came on slowly, the way you learn about something and start to see it everywhere you look. First, I came across a microfiche of Clara Driscoll’s obituary, the date of death the same as my birthday, though 27 years earlier. A pretentious concierge type at the Driscoll Hotel corrected my drunken assumption that Driscoll and Driskill were part of the same family, the change in spelling just something I assumed happened regularly “back in the olden days.” Then I stumbled across Driscoll’s historical marker during a wedding at a mansion in west campus.

Finally, I helped staff an archivist fundraiser at Laguna Gloria, Clara’s former home, a fact I absorbed sometime before vomiting up everything else while a board member reapplied her lipstick in the mirror. She lingered in her cloud of Chanel No. 5 just long enough after my flush to get a good look at the face exiting the stall of shame, her own visage prim and proper, lips pursed in buttery coral judgment as she disappeared back into the party. The sink was one of those old-timey contraptions with separate faucets for hot and cold, and I turned both on full blast to mix the temperatures as best I could as I spot-cleaned my face. I swished out my mouth, slicked Black Honey onto my lips, and garnished with a stick of gum. The steam from the hot side of the sink clung to the mirror long enough to reveal what had been hidden moments earlier: the word SLUT, written with the tip of a finger and what I would bet my life had been the alcohol-based invisible ink from a bottle of eau de parfum. I went home with a cater waiter that night and within a week had wrapped up my internship for good, with no job offer and a network of contacts that held low to no opinions of me. I’d failed to make an impression.

The day of my birthday and Clara’s death day, July 17, I limped back to the family homeland: San Antonio. I needed funds, and the surest way to replenish them could be found in the annual cache of birthday cards, which would be all mine if I sat through a family meal, lunch this year, as July 17 fell on a Sunday. I’d gotten out of going to church, but the rest of them had been present in the third pew, and they invited Pastor Dan along to eat at the beloved barbecue place. I hated barbecue, especially in the middle of summer, but it wasn’t really about me, so I smiled and nodded along as best I could until the inevitable cake appeared out of thin air. It was Mom’s attempt at a recipe perfected by Grandma, who had died three years earlier. My mom had a hard time coping: “She never got to see you graduate,” she would cry, and I’d feel bad, though not bad enough to hang around for very long.

The cake was not great, but we all made a point of eating at least half a slice. Mercifully, the party broke up soon after, and the cards began depositing in my lap as aunts and uncles made their exits. The mother load dropped when my dad, magnanimous in his farewells and glad-handing with strangers around the indoor-outdoor restaurant, finally joined my mother and rested a hand on her shoulder as she handed me their card.

I got so blackout that night that the Miata went missing for more than a week. I did everything possible to avoid letting my parents find out, so instead of reporting it stolen, I offered a reward to some of the scumbags I knew from the music scene, low lives so dirty even I wouldn’t touch them. Almost a fortnight later, Cherry, as the Miata was affectionately known, turned up in Dallas, in the driveway of a girl from college I’d apparently lent my car to after we ran into each other in a bar and celebrated the momentous occasion of reuniting little more than a year after we had graduated. She’d needed a way to get back to the metroplex, and I had apparently announced my intentions to “veg for a week” before looking for gainful employment. It had been the perfect plan until I had forgotten and panicked the next morning. I paid the scumbag the reward, and he somehow got the car back without either of us having to go to Dallas. Cherry survived her adventure intact, perhaps even running a bit spritelier as we zipped around town, and I began to feel a bit jealous.

Still, the much-needed wake-up call did not occur until Halloween. I’d managed to find a job at the mall, working the floor in a department store and failing to meet my sales quota every single day. Still, the schedule was flexible enough even for my taste, and I did know my label names, so clearing the dressing rooms was a breeze. The job kept me afloat between occasional influxes of cash from my parents, to whom I appealed separately and alternately for help. I think, by this point, even I knew I couldn’t keep it up for much longer, but forces greater than I were at work to make the final push.

I’d swapped for a dreaded morning shift so I could go out for Halloween. Mornings weren’t terribly busy, but the few shoppers that did stalk the sales racks were ruthless. The number of price checks in the first hour alone could be enough to push a subtle hangover into a full-on migraine. And Angela. Good gracious, Angela. Perfectly chipper and optimistic, every blouse the cutest she’d ever seen, every piece of jewelry sublime, every single article of inventory something beautiful and necessary. She was sunshine on a stick. The morning manager after only three months, Angela was going places within the company. She was also a full-time student on track to graduate early. She was four years younger than me and my boss. I wanted to hate her, but her enthusiasm was genuine and infectious.

She was also expanding my musical horizons. Angela listened to music made for dancing in open-air beachside bars; I was more into stuff I could bob my head to in the dark and smoky downtown clubs. This music was lighter and more fun, when it wasn’t weeping over a love gone wrong. I’d heard of the singer in passing, but Angela was an actual fan, gushing over magazine photos and soda commercials that had originally escaped my attention. During the hour before the doors opened, as we swept the tile walkways and sprinkled deodorizing powders into the carpets, Angela would play her favorite CDs over the speakers set into the mall ceiling. The cumbia beat, incessant and fast, could drill a hole right through your brain if you tried to fight it. It would be worse if you attempted to draw on your schoolbook Spanish to understand the words. Better to surrender, shake your hips a little, and float away on lyrics that inspired emotion more than precise translation.

That morning, a perfect storm occurred in ladies’ fashions, and none of us saw it coming—especially me. I was wrestling with a tangled batch of clothes hangers, which had somehow interlocked themselves in a pile wedged behind the register. Angela, I’d later learn, had been distracted by a no-call no-show firing, a gum-smacking joke of a woman who had barely made it through the job interview. Assistant Manager Pam had taken it upon herself to unlock the font doors promptly at 10 a.m. so Angela could take care of business behind the scenes. I was squatting on the floor, muttering curses under my breath, when I heard an incessant tapping on the laminate counter.

An older woman stood in front of me, wrist resting on the signature pad, and as I straightened myself and my blazer, she continued to tap her fingernails next to the register. I’d seen her before, of course; she was one of our early-morning bargain hunters. But this morning, up-close and obviously irritated, she was a haggard old crone under fluorescent bulbs—the good lighting was in the dressing room. Long, talon-like acrylics, bizarrely devoid of color, tapped syncopatively against the beat. I realized too late that no one had switched the store’s sound system to its usual muzak.

“What is this…song?” The way she spat out the word made her distaste clear. It would have been kinder for her to call it “racket”; acknowledging it as music brought the specific nature of her disapproval to the forefront of both our minds. Not that it was much of a conversation. I opened my mouth to invoke the name of the singer, but she silenced me with a glare. “This isn’t our type of music,” she intoned, waving the air around her head as though the musical notes were pestering her like so many mosquitos.

All these years later, when I remember her, I think of the word she used. Our. At the time, I’d inwardly scoffed. My music was much different than her muzak; in terms of mass-appeal bands, I was riding the cusp of a Stone Temple Pilots obsession. That didn’t even touch the boundaries of what I considered to be my well-versed indie rock soul. Our music didn’t exist, I thought. But I was well coached in cloaking my musical tastes from the observation of rich old white ladies, had in fact spent a lifetime carefully crafting that rebellious persona, and all I could think to say in the moment was: “I’m sorry! It must have been the cleaning crew. I’ll get that switched over.”

I turned around to my second scare of the morning. This time, however, it wasn’t the wrinkles from a lifetime of scowling that shocked me. It was the fierce and burning disappointment in Angela’s face as she stared right through to my soul. Angela, who had an 18-hour course load and a full-time job. Angela, who wanted to work within the government to make the world a better place. Angela scared me because, that day, she saw what I was made of, and it wasn’t much. Beautiful, bubbly, unceasingly kind Angela stared me down like a bug: offensive but ultimately insignificant.

“The song is about a love that transcends prejudice,” Angela said in her customer service voice, which, I should note, was also her real voice. She smiled, spun on her heel, and walked away.

“Well, it’s just awful,” the cryptkeeper said, a beat too late to expect to be heard. She smirked at me, but I shamefully stared down at the hangers in my hands. Magically, they loosened, freeing themselves from the retail Rubik’s Cube that had me so preoccupied two minutes earlier, and I was left with nothing to distract me from the awkwardness of my own shame. The cryptkeeper slowly drew out her fingernail taps until I thought I would go insane, then her face victoriously registered the metaphorical record scratch as the speakers switched over to what I quickly recognized as the instrumental version of Dean Martin’s “Sway.” The cryptkeeper nodded, smugly and emphatically, failing to notice that Deano’s mambo rhythm kept the same pattern as the cumbia that caused her to register her complaint.

The cryptkeeper seemed to be so invigorated that she skipped the clearance rack and bought herself a full-priced frock. She actually used the word frock, talking to me nonstop for the next hour and a half about the masked ball she was attending that night. A hospital fundraiser, weren’t doctors the most wonderful people on the planet, her late husband had been a doctor, did I know that? I hadn’t, but I did know that my grandfather had been a cardiologist and a serial philanderer. I said nothing though, remaining mostly silent through the rest of my six-hour shift. No one even noticed. I went home without eating and scooped the overripe litterbox as penance. Normally I would have self-medicated, but Angela’s face haunted me, so I just crawled back into bed and napped the daylight away.

Hours later, I felt revived enough to put on my costume and go out into the dark revelry. A humanities graduate, I had dressed annoyingly and obscurely…as Clara Driscoll. It had seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, but that night, after explaining myself for the tenth time, I regretted my hubris. I’d modeled my costume on the most relatively well-known portrait of Clara, a cameo complete with flower crown and off-the-shoulder neckline. My planned concession, a hint for the hoi polloi, included a pamphlet that cried SAVE THE ALAMO, but that prompted more than one guess of “Davy Crockett’s wife.” At some point between bars, I borrowed the sharpie used for marking Xs on hands, wrote CLARA DRISCOLL on the pamphlet, and flashed it at the next two people who asked who I was. I walked away from a loud conversation about the Driskill Hotel ghost and down on the curb to finish my cigarette.

“Oh my gosh, can I use your lighter?” A girl broke free from the human river flowing down Sixth Street, which had been closed to vehicles for the holiday, and made a U-turn back to me. Her friend eventually noticed they’d lost a body and grabbed the two boys with them. All three came to a stop farther down the sidewalk, posted up near a tree growing out of a metal grate on the street corner. None of them were old enough to drink, but at least one of the boys was severely intoxicated, leaning against the tree as though it were the only steady influence on the spinning planet. The girl was dressed in a bustier and wore bright-red lipstick with exaggerated lipliner. I blinked up at her.

“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom?”

“Yeah, man!” she laughed, leaning down to light her cigarette from the flame I extended. She exhaled into my face. “Sorry! Oh, Clara Driscoll! Cool.” She nodded her approval as she stood up. For a moment, I thought she had understood my costume but then saw she had read the answer off my sharpied pamphlet, which lay face-up on the curb next to me. It was the best I was going to get, I figured, so I smiled. “You know her?”

“Yeah, man, I’m from Corpus. Like La Madonna Mexicana!” She gestured down her own figure and threw a laugh over her shoulder to her friends. They motioned for her to hurry up—at least, the two who weren’t puking did. The girl vaguely pointed at my pamphlet. “She, like, died there. Or, I guess, you died there.” She patted my floral crown and laughed again. “Anyway, thanks a lot, Clara!” She was swept back into the human river, her friends left to catch up as she reached her hands out to them, tragically spanning the distance to that far-off shore of the sidewalk and giggling as they scurried to catch up. I stared until I lost them in the crush of costumes. The ash fell from my cigarette and smoldered a hole into the gauze of my Goodwill dress before I noticed.

It is a terrible idea, normally, to walk from Sixth Street to Hyde Park in the middle of the night, but I was wearing a long white dress and an increasingly disheveled coiffure. I terrified everyone who passed me, watching them cross the street and sometimes several lanes of traffic to get away from me, the approaching specter. When I got home, I easily found the folder, as it was the only paperwork I’d collected in the six months since I’d ceremoniously burned all my grad school application materials. Clara Driscoll died July 17, 1945, in Corpus Christi, Texas. I reread the obituary I’d printed from the archives, as well as a few other bits of research I’d collected. As the vague interest had grown and taken shape, I even came across a research fellowship given to grad students in her name. And though I’d associated Clara with Austin and San Antonio, I had known, on some level, that she was from the coast. It made sense she would have wound up back there.

“She died almost fifty years ago,” I muttered to Buffy, the street cat my roommate and I had adopted together sophomore year. I had won custody of Buffy during our senior year divorce. For good measure, I elaborated: “Half a century.” Would something be done to mark the occasion? Was there was an opportunity for me to do some scholarly research into her life? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, grad school was still a possibility for me? From her perch on the kitchen counter, Buffy yawned audibly. She knew what was really happening: I desperately needed to fling myself out of this self-created hell.

I saw myself, dressed as Clara Driscoll, reflected in the window, a pale and thin sliver in the lamp light of my living room. Then I saw a man’s face pressed against the windowpane. I screamed, and he laughed, though I could tell from the catch in his voice that I had scared him too. He hadn’t expected to come over, peek into my window, and find a 1930s activist staring back at him. When I opened the door, he was not in costume; he was too cool. He didn’t seem to care much about my costume either, and after one joint, it came off anyway, and I forgot about Clara in more ways than one.

I’d wisely taken the next day off work, but I wasn’t terribly hungover, just relieved not to have to face Angela. When he left around noon, I drove myself to the public library to see what I could dig up. I read about the hotel Clara had constructed in Corpus, the city’s tallest building at the time, where she lived and died in the penthouse. I read about the two novels she’d published, as well as the Broadway musical she’d financed. I tried to track down copies of each, but the manuscripts were locked away in academic libraries. A snooty librarian of the old-timey variety informed me that I needed to be a scholar to access those materials. I felt overjoyed at the challenge, the first stirrings of motivation I’d felt in years. Before work the next day, I used my expired student ID to sneak into a library on campus, where I read the entire debut novel.

After Halloween, I was back on afternoon and evening shifts at the store, so I only encountered Angela in passing. She was polite and professional, but I never once asked for another morning shift. I thought I might stay on through the holidays, with lucrative extended hours and the possibilities of overtime and bonuses, but I had also started forming my escape plan. There was only one distraction on the easy slide down the rest of the year, and he used Thanksgiving as an excuse to move back to his hometown. He told everyone his grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer, but he really meant that he would be living rent-free in her house while she cooked and cleaned for him. I cried more than I should have but pulled myself back together in time to navigate the trickiest part of my own plan: convincing my parents to fund a research trip.

“Do we know anyone in Corpus?” my mom asked, looking around the post-Thanksgiving kitchen as though someone in the family would answer. Everyone else was watching football on TV, including Dad, and I knew she couldn’t be asking me. The royal we, in my mother’s cast of characters, was always she and my father. They were the family; I was just a hanger-on. Besides, we didn’t know anybody in Corpus, which was part of the reason I’d chosen to go. “A girl I went to college with,” I looked her straight in the eye. “Billie Jean.” The Legend of Billie Jean was one of the few things I knew about Corpus, and I highly doubted my mom remembered it. She nodded sagely. “We’ll have to see what your father says. And don’t even mention your idea about selling the car. That would kill him.”

She’d played right into my hands, of course; she knew that if I was willing to part with Cherry to fund my dreams, then I must be serious. Plus, there was no way they’d let me drive the Miata around a strange city without springing for accommodations in a safe, car theft–free neighborhood. I knew money wasn’t the issue, but sometimes they worried aloud that the financial safety net prevented me from building any character. And, to be fair, they had been right up to this point, but I just knew that, if I could get them to support me for another year or so, I could get things back on track.

“Of course, you can request a transfer through the department store.” My mother, the super shopper, knew malls inside and out, and she had taken a special interest in this little career detour of mine. “All the malls in Texas are anchored by your store.” Though I had hoped to avoid this possibility, I knew she was right. No one would dream of challenging her on the ins and outs of shopping malls, and transfers were a great way to move up in the company as well as around the country. I’d met several lifelong employees in my brief time working at the store.

“If you give them enough notice and you work hard over the holidays, I’m sure they’ll help you out with a transfer.” My mom, bless her, earnestly believed I wanted to keep my retail job while jumpstarting my academic career. I smiled and played along; there was still time to worm my way out of this. I was scheduled for a 5 a.m. start the following day, not only my first Black Friday but another shift with Angela as my supervisor, despite my protests. I’d been toying with the idea of no-call no-show, since I didn’t plan to keep the job for much longer anyway.

“And you’re not fooling anyone with that Billie Jean movie,” my mother said, wrecking all my best-laid plans as she saran-wrapped leftover green bean casserole for my father to excavate from the fridge during his late-night snacking hour. “Who do you think drove you to Blockbuster? Your father got so sick of renting the same stupid movie over and over again that we finally just bought it for you. It’s still here—I saw it the other day.” She toweled her hands as she led me to the video cabinet, ignoring the football on the screen and opening a wooden panel to reveal nearly one hundred VHS tapes—mass market sleeves and home movies labeled with her backward-sloping southpaw script. “You wanted to marry Christian Slater,” she threw over her shoulder on her way back to the kitchen, more than a little mockery in her voice. A few cousins giggled from the couch.

I made it through Black Friday after all, and at the Christmas party, Middle Management Nancy announced my transfer to the Corpus Christi store. Everyone congratulated me on my wise decision to stay with the company. I shrugged, but it did feel kind of nice, being a valued employee and making smart decisions about my future. The wholesome feeling carried me through the rest of the holiday season, late nights and last-minute shoppers be damned, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s saw a well-earned return to my hedonistic ways.

I had two weeks between leaving the Austin store and starting in Corpus, and it’s no exaggeration to say I nearly died twice—once behind the wheel of the Miata and again when he returned to town for one final hurrah during which I may have accidentally on-purpose overdosed. When I learned his reaction had been to let me “sleep it off,” I wailed at the indignity and swore to never speak to him again, which suited him just fine, as he’d let me know during a post-coital conversation that he had recently proposed to his high school sweetheart. My one small victory was that I hadn’t told him I was leaving, and when he inevitably washed up again a few months later, he wouldn’t be able find me. I would make sure of it. No one in our shared circus arena cared what happened to me, and he couldn’t track my movements if I left Austin. He didn’t know my parents and probably couldn’t name one of the few real friends I had left. As far as he was concerned, I was a ghost.

All this freedom got me two hours down the road from Austin, screaming tunelessly into the wind with the Miata’s top down and the heater at full blast, my ridiculous knit cap pulled tight against the reality of January First. I’d made it past the suburbs, some quaint small towns, and anything resembling civilization as far as I was concerned when the elation finally died down. Plus, I had to pee. I pulled into a gas station, nondescript in its disgustingness, and left the pump filling the tank while I hovered over an ice-cold toilet seat. I didn’t notice the crow until I stepped back out into the bright, cold sunshine. It hopped on one foot, the injured leg dangling uselessly as it tried to counter its weight with the tips of its wing feathers. I looked around for help, squinting into the sun. Across the street, a fenced-in graveyard with metal letters welded above the gate: LATIN AMERICAN CEMETERY.

With a composure under pressure that pleasantly surprised me, I opened the trunk full of my most valuable worldly possessions, which were packed tightly into cardboard boxes. I’d heard stories of people nursing crows back to health, that sometimes the crows even brought gifts in gratitude, and I figured the bird would be safer riding in my car all the way to the coast than out in the wild. I had almost emptied the box full of kitchenware when a truck pulled into the gas station, paused for a moment, backed up, and ran over the crow. I stood in shock as the truck reversed again and returned to its original trajectory, pulling into the gas pump that backed mine. For fear that I would look at the mess he’d made of the bird, I instead stared down the man who got out of the driver’s side.

When I finally caught his eye, he looked bewildered for a moment, then looked at the bird and shrugged. “Is better this way,” he said in broken English. He quietly started the gas pump and went inside, while his friend in the passenger seat laughed. I slammed the trunk shut and whipped the car around, unfolding my map and ignoring the cemetery that spun past the windshield. I headed back the way I had come, and as soon as I got my bearings, cut toward San Antonio instead of Austin. I navigated ever tinier country roads until the small towns’ names started sounding familiar. I had planned to avoid going through San Antonio on my new year, new me drive, but now I’d changed my mind.

I parked diagonally in my parents’ driveway and left the car unlocked. My mother was reading a magazine on the couch and didn’t seem surprised to see me. She never even got off the couch during the entire time I was in her house: the two minutes it took to go upstairs and find Buffy sleeping on the pillow in my childhood bedroom, plus the three I needed to carry her back downstairs and pack her things. My mother hadn’t moved the litterbox I’d set up in the corner of the laundry room, and the cat carrier and bag of food were still stacked on top. I gently stuffed Buffy into the carrier and quickly decided to buy a new litterbox when I got to Corpus. “That cat inherited your personality,” my mother said, turning a page as I struggled to open the front door.

“Better than your huge thighs,” I yelled as I slammed the front door. I placed the carrier in the passenger seat, then spent ten minutes zipping up the Miata’s convertible top so Buffy would be comfortable on the ride to Corpus. As I was digging around on the passenger side of the car, I found the Secret Santa gift I’d received from the company Christmas party. One of Angela’s favorite staffers had drawn my name and smirked as I tore the wrapping paper off the CD case. Amor Prohibido. Angela wouldn’t have put her up to it, but the message of the gift was that she had repeated the story to at least one of our coworkers. The night of the party, I had dropped the CD case in my passenger seat and willfully forgotten about it, but here it was, stuck between the passenger seat and door.

In my original envisioning of the first great road trip of 1995, I had wanted to avoid the easy route to Corpus, a straight shot from San Antonio down Interstate 37 that drove you practically right into the ocean. However, on my second attempt, this was the route I took, playing Amor Prohibido the whole way. When I finally did stop for gas again, I did so on the outskirts of Corpus Christi. I heard the clerk speaking in Spanish on the phone, so I asked the question I had been practicing for the last thirty miles. “Qué es brindarte?”

He laughed. “It’s a toast to you,” he said, his torso framed by the overhead cigarette display. Then he began rocking back and forth on his little stool, singing the song that had prompted me to ask the question in the first place.

I briefly gagged on the memory of all the toasts I’d taken the night before, but I couldn’t help smiling at him. “Gracias.”

“De nada,” he enunciated, slowly and clearly, before returning to the lyrics, now singing to whoever was on the other end of the phone.

I arrived at Corpus Christi Bay just after sunset on the moonless night. While Buffy waited in the car, I walked across the sand to dip my toes in the Gulf of Mexico.

End of Part I

The Editor in Sharp Objects

On Sunday, I wrote about writing in my reading journal, which I still think is a good habit to have, even at the age of 37. It helps me keep track of my reading (my post about Goodreads is coming tomorrow) and to process the things I have read. I consume so much longform nonfiction now that I struggle to remember when and where I came across a certain idea, so the journal has been a lifesaver when it comes to research. I have also noticed some patterns in my own life and career.

The stories from last week that inspired me included:

  1. Judy Maggio on Austin homelessness in a Decibel Facebook post and the actual airing on KLRU.
  2. A New York Times Instagram post about the Port Authority ladies’ room.
  3. A book review of The Grammarians, also in the New York Times, from which I receive biweekly email newsletters.

Sometime during my transcription of quotes I liked from the third article, when I was sated but still refusing to stop, I hit on a connected topic I had wanted to write about several months ago but forgotten. All the truly good story ideas by/for/about women inspired me to remember how dearly I loved the male editor in Sharp Objects, and how desperately I want one of my own.

I have not read the Sharp Objects book but did read Gone Girl and am familiar with Gillian Flynn’s journalistic background and Missouri upbringing. A friend had recommended the HBO series to me when it first came out a year ago; when I did finally get around to watching it, the delightful creepiness gave me all the right kinds of chills. Details like the hand-painted silk wallpaper (not to mention the ivory floor) are still haunting me. I think the French director’s postmortem recaps helped, too. Without posting too many spoilers: the male editor’s unwavering support of the main character, an alcoholic journalist, elicited an audible sob from me at one point during the finale.

In real life, I have lost yet another editor; this time, however, it was through no fault of my own. I am possibly about to get a male editor, and I’m apprehensive, to say the least; I have not had the best luck with them. I did some reminiscing, and I realized that I have not had a male editor in over a decade. As a result, I have been replaying a lot of the “learning opportunities” they provided at the start of my career. (This is not a Shitty Media Men type of thing; I just learned early on that I work better with women.)

The male editor in Sharp Objects, however, is a truly good, kind-hearted male editor who provides professional and emotional support to his protégé, even while he undergoes a round of chemotherapy. Near the end of the series, when Camille has written the piece that sums up the emotional journey she has taken, he praises: “That’s beautiful copy.”