While I was getting my face waxed today (I’m Sicilian and hairy) I got wished a Happy Mother’s Day, and I kind of wish it hadn’t happened.
Unlike many friends who are also grimacing their way through the the holiday, my mother is alive, we are not estranged, and I am not struggling with infertility or child loss.
But I am 43, childless, and deeply ambivalent about it. Ambivalence implies a lack of strong emotions, and to some extent that’s true. I mean, here I am, no kids, had other stuff to do. But lately my ambivalence looks like a constant yo-yo’ing between gasping relief at my freedom and locking myself in the bathroom at work to sob, because Erin and I have just written several novels with pregnancies and children in them and it’s been close to the bone for me.
In fact, I have a number of pretty spectacular essays about all this sitting on my hard drive. So why haven’t I posted them yet? Or submitted them? Or finished them?
Well, all sorts of reasons. Including wanting the books in question to be out first.
But I’m also cognizant that as a queer and genderqueer woman who has opted out (or simply hasn’t been able to secure) so many of the culturally rewarded milestones of womanhood, that when I say my experience of my womanhood is to feel like Hermione Granger with no awards to hang on her wall, three things are going to happen:
First, people will show up in the comments, express relief that I have no children, and call me either ugly or a narcissist.
Second, people with children will decide that my comments about my own psychological landscape are an insult to them. Maybe because I’ve been careless in my phrasing. But maybe because women are put in the constant position of having to defend their choices and circumstances no matter what they are.
Third, there will also be endless advice about late in life pregnancy and/or adoption that has nothing to do with me and my body and my life or all the research I did for the book with the 48-year-old heroine.
And it’s just going to be awful.
So what did I do at the face wax? I sucked it up and said thank you, and then wondered if I looked old, and then wondered if I looked accomplished. In the end, I suspect, I just looked tired. And none of it did anything to dissuade me from my conviction that being a woman is, at core, about endurance.
I’m currently in the slightly bizarre position of writing a personal essay in the voice of a person who doesn’t exist, because the two-book mini-series (surely someone will excoriate me if I use the admittedly absurd word, duology) Erin and I are currently writing involves, among other things, a travel writer who can’t get his manuscript about Vienna right.
I was in Vienna for my day job in January and February 2016, in the midst of ball season. I found out that ball season is even a thing that exists about a week before I got on the plane. While I was uncertain if I would actually go through with attending one (ticketing is somewhat complex, involving admittance, seating, and a number of other items, all assembled separately into a single ticket), I packed a formal gown (let’s be real, a multi-purpose bridesmaids dress), spent as much time on Google translate as I could, and then as the date of the one that seemed likely approached, wavered back and forth.
I don’t speak German, although I have gotten to a point where I can do social niceties and follow the gist of a conversation had in my presence. My contemporary social dancing is adequate at best, and while I can do the sort of waltz favored in the U.S., a Viennese waltz is completely beyond my skill set. Strangers scare me. Men, at this point in my life, are largely a foreign country. And Viennese social customs, as I am given to understand them, suggested none of this would even matter, as the let’s-make-temporary-friends with strangers behavior common in the U.S., and that I’ve often encountered in the U.K., doesn’t seem to be a thing there.
If I went to the ball I would be alone, confused, unable to dance, and with little opportunity to engage strangers should I have even found the nerve, which I tend to do once I cycle through the sort of fretting above.
In the end, though, I bought tickets to the Zuckerbaeckerball, as it was recommended to me by a random Tumblr person and was one of the few to fit in with a heavy work and travel schedule. Held at the Hoffburg Imperial Palace, a short walk from where I was staying, the Zuckerbaeckerball is put on by the sugar-baking industry (cakes not breads!) and like any proper ball has debutantes.
While I grew up with debutantes (I’m still not joking when I compare my childhood to Metropolitan), I was certainly not one myself. My family wasn’t that type of important, didn’t have those sorts of means, and didn’t really see me as part of the social whirl that was expected by the world in which I was educated. Sure, I went to balls, like the Gold and Silver Ball of the Junior Committee of the Junior League of New York (a name only typed here so you can experience the full ridiculousness of this stuff), but they were practice for events of the sort I never graced. It’s all useful fodder for writing now, but I might have been better served as a person if my parents had just said no.
At any rate, every ball in Vienna has debutantes. And, arguably, everyone in Vienna who wants to be a debutante can be. With hundreds of balls each year representing industries and social clubs, and with balls being unavoidable in the city’s social scene, young men and women who wish to make their debuts, most certainly do.
At the Hoffburg, alone, I crowded into the main ballroom to see their presentation. I watched as row after row of girls kneeled as their dancemasters and ball officials passed before them. On their knees for ten minutes at a time, maybe more, as their escorts stood beside them, some of the girls shook. One, near me, had a fabulous butchy undercut, that had been smoothed down with product and had tiny flowers clipped into it.
After the debuts, the main ballroom floor was opened for a Viennese waltz. My feet aching, and with no hope of a dance partner, I fled to sit, but without a purchased seat (it felt too weird, to be stranded at a table of people whose language I did not speak, who would not welcome a stranger), I had nowhere to do so until I found an out of the way bathroom on a mezzanine level of the palace.
From my cubicle I listened as girls sixteen to twenty slammed in and out of the bathroom, fretting about make up and shoes and boys and parents. I, meanwhile, fretted about the hundred euros I’d spent to hide in a bathroom.
So I put my shoes back on, stood up straight, and remembered that years of my life had been dedicated to how to comport myself in this entirely unlikely circumstance. And so I found a perch on the edge of the ballroom from which to watch the proceedings and wait for some serendipity to find me.
It came when the music switched to American standards, and the bandleader played Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” As I stood there, thinking about my Upper East Side childhood and how I was never meant to be — and never could be — the girl in that song, I wondered to what extent the song made sense in Vienna. Surely, no on there knew about the ten blocks that defined my childhood, but also surely there was a Viennese equivalent to it, and the song, and girls like me — with the song’s hot blood and wedged poorly into an an archaic social structure as beautiful as it is offensive.
I smiled as tears rolled down my cheeks. Serendipity. The most perfect moment. Even at a ball where I could not dance.
Today, I’m faced with describing a very different version of that moment as experienced by a lonely male writer, ten years my senior, who fit in exceptionally with the shared world of our childhoods, and for that, has managed far more contempt for it than I ever have, to his much greater happiness.
Long ago and far away, I didn’t just write personal essays, I blogged them. Over time, I stopped doing that, because while decades of people on the Internet telling me to shut the fuck up never worked in the moment, over time it erodes you.
This site then sort of morphed into my occasionally talking about my life and more often talking about media I loved. Think really hard, and I bet you can guess how that went too. Then Erin & I got a book deal, and another, and other, and most of my blogging was done over at Avian30 in service to that: New releases, my complex feelings about romcoms, the latest somewhat political dust-up in Romancelandia.
And then a funny thing happened on the way to the literary HEA (Happily Ever After for you non-romance types). The genre I was writing and publishing in suddenly and abruptly connected me to the past I had learned not to write, or even talk, about. My childhood — unhappy, sex-segregated, and intensely privileged although actually outside of my family’s means — abruptly made sense, as did the nature of my exile from it. It had been Pride & Prejudice with different dresses, and I had escaped it and the social tragedy of never marrying well by choosing my queerness — not just in regard to my bisexuality, but in regard to my appearance and politics — over everything else.
That lightbulb means I now have a lot of things to write about — including a memoir I long swore I had not interest in. Much of what I have to say, here and in that project, centers on the themes already found here: queerness, class, exile, and loss. Being a tween and teen in the ’80s in New York means I grew up clumsily amid two dying worlds. The first, a New York Society that didn’t know how to stop believing in its long-expired relevance. The second, the New York arts scenes collapsing under the weight and terror of AIDS. My parents were painters.
For all that I once talked about these parts of my life enough to be scolded for doing so, I’ve never really talked about them. I showed people what was beautiful about them, even when I was trying to describe what was terrible. In part, this happened because I didn’t really understand them or what had happened to me in them. For me, wounds have always been a seductive thing, as has been the attempt to borrow privilege to salve them. Sometimes, it seemed the only way I could survive.
At 43 I have been partnered to a woman for nine years, have just started wearing makeup every day in the last three months, and am, at the moment, working on a romance novel about two people who are utterly different from me but who happen to both be evacuees from childhoods not so dissimilar to mine.
I’m going to start posting more here. Not, for the moment, systematically. Or, perhaps, with any great art. But I have stories to tell that live at the intersection of one world that probably should have died out by now, and another that should never have incurred the great losses it has.
That’s strange. And cut into me and difficult. And it deserves my words, in large part because it’s how I acquired the ability to do anything of interest with words. We’ll see how it goes.
If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, mostly, I’ve been writing romance novels with Erin McRae, as well as writing (with Patty Bryant) and producing for Serial Box Publishing‘s Tremontaine, a text-based web serial that is a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. (Yes, this is a professional endeavor Ellen herself is involved in). But in the land of romance novels, the project about to go out the door is called A Queen from the North.
A Queen from the North is about Amelia Brockett, the youngest daughter of an Northern earl and recent grad-school reject who winds up agreeing to a marriage of convenience with the Prince of Wales in a modern Britain where the Windsors never happened. In the Britain of our book, fault-lines from the War of the Roses remain deep and mistrust between the houses of York and Lancaster remains strong. Along the way to Amelia and her prince actually falling in love, prophecy, tradition, and the prince’s niece — a fox-faced witch girl who looks like Anne Boleyn and has nightmares about the Tower ravens dying — make Amelia’s life as challenging as her ridiculous family, her sex-obsessed best friend, the prying hordes of the Internet, and the entire nation of Canada. Canada, by the way, saves the day in the end via a Tim Horton’s shop girl.
It was with that book in final edits for submission, that Patty and I went to see the sublime, haunting, and ritualistic King Charles III on Broadway last night. This would be an easy play to miss. No one really likes Charles, and another play about the British relationship with the tabloid press and the royals as tourism industry doesn’t seem particularly fresh. The marketing of the show also does it no favors, suggesting a light satire instead of the classically inspired tragedy that it is.
King Charles III, written largely in blank verse, borrowing heavily from Shakespeare (from Richard II to Hamlet to the Scottish play), and staged with flickering candles and live music and chanting for great moments of state (a death vigil, a coronation) is the type of theater that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It taps into what is primal and dangerous, about tradition both maintained and upset while also conjuring the totalitarian fears of those of us who remember the Thatcher years.
It is a glorious, clever, wicked, and dark thing, that features Princess Diana as a limping trickster ghost that promises too many men they will be Britain’s greatest king. And while the play will seem at points to advocate for any number of uncomfortable political positions on the vagaries of constitutional monarchy, it ultimately condemns them all, suggesting the glory of monarchy rests only in our discomfort with it.
King Charles III is running in New York City only until January 30. The cheap seats (and rush tickets) all have excellent site lines, and if you can get to this show, at any price level, it is an absolute must see.
If you are planning to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge, I would encourage you not to read the following as even those familiar with the play will benefit from the shocks created by the staging.
For a year in college, I had a boyfriend who was tall and thin, more angular than delicate. I brought him home for Thanksgiving that year, and he slept, without argument on the floor of my parents living room, as they required. That they would not allow us to have a conversation in my bedroom with the door even partially closed was the subject of argument, but only between myself and my father. The boy, a Southener, was achingly well-behaved.
Two days into the trip my parents informed me that they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), because he was thin. And it wasn’t what they wanted for me; that he’d give me AIDS. And they disinvited him from our home in which he was already staying in. Ashamed and awkward, I packed our things, and we drove back to Washington, D.C. A few months later, we’d broken up, because I was having an affair with barrel-chested man much older than me. That man had a wife too, but after the matter of the too skinny college boy, if I’d told my parents, they likely only would have been reassured.
It was with that story buried in a pretty large pile of weird, difficult drama in my Sicilian-Jewish family, that last night Patty and I went to see the Young Vic production of A View from the Bridge. If you’re not familiar with the play, it tells the story of Eddie Carbone as he freaks out when Catherine, the niece he raised as a daughter (and is now inappropriately attracted to), beings to date Rodolpho, a Sicilian immigrant who “just ain’t right” (he dances, he sings, he makes dresses, and he doesn’t fight back in a manner deemed correct when Eddie kisses him).
Sound familiar? Yeah. I thought so too.
But despite having actually seen other productions of the play before, it had never registered to me just how much I knew this story personally. Mid 20th-century drama is often staged with stifling domesticity and focuses so much on the ordinariness of men that it becomes difficult to see how these stories actually revolve around non-male presences in the narrative.
Ivo van Hove’s production eschews naturalism for acute simplicity and an almost ritualistic performance of Greek tragedy. Opening with Eddie and another dockworker showering and dressing after a shift, the play immediately forces the audience to look at and appreciate male flesh in a way that was for me — again, raised in that Sicilian household — wildly uncomfortable.
To stare at a man way a man would stare at a woman is to feminize him, and this production of A View from the Bridge brings that home as all the characters assess the show’s men constantly — who is strong, who is desirable, who looks like a man should. The audience, made complicit in this gaze, squirms (truly, a highlight of seeing the show from the seats on stage — and this is where you should see it from) is hearing the bulk of the audience gasp, and even cry out in shock at several key moments. This was as extraordinary and terrifying as anything presented by the players.
While the emotional arcs of the play can seem peculiar, — Eddie, in particular, tends to go from 0 to 60 in rage — I can only say that the volatility felt truthful to the home I was raised in. The way Catherine shrinks into herself after these outbursts, I suspect also seems disproportionate to some audience members, but the reaction read to me as less to anger and more to volatility, and I should know, as a girl who can’t bear to be startled.
Perhaps most astounding though — other than how any actor can be asked to give the performance Mark Strong gives in this show 8 times a week — is the culmination of the show’s design, in which the shower that opens the show closes it, this time, with blood raining down into the final tableau of a melee in which Eddie is stabbed by one of the cousins. It’s a holy moment, at least if you’ve spent any time around the bloodily painted saint statues of Sicily. It’s also what should be an obvious moment — the water that rains down in the opening a gun that goes off with the blood raining down in the closing — but so wrapped up are we in the demand that we look at these characters, and their bodies, we miss it.
I should note, the blood, while surely some random theatrical compound, has a stench. Much like, one supposes, the poison of honor.
On Saturday night, I went to see Let the Right One In at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC. Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s novel and film, both by the same name, the play tells the story of a peculiar friendship between Oskar, a young boy, and Eli, who seems like a young girl who lives next door.
Odds are, you know what happens next. The film was something of a minor sensation when it came out, and you probably recall that the girl is actually a vampire.
Except, not really.
For one thing, she’s not exactly a girl. “I’m not a girl. I’m not a boy. I’m not anything, I’m nothing!” she says at one point. And she might not be a vampire either. That word is never uttered in the course of the play, and at the moment it’s about to be she insists ferociously that she’s “Not that! Never that!”
The piece is filled with unanswered questions — about Eli’s gender both now and in the past, about what she is and how she got that way, about the reasons for her flat and abrasive affect, and about her motives. One of the most weirdly shocking moments of the piece is when she insists to Oskar she has money, and then proves it by pulling a Faberge egg out of the trunk in which she sleeps. The egg is never addressed further and barely explained (“What’s it for?” Oskar asks. “For having,” Eli says, both disinterested and certain). But despite its mystery, that egg feels indicative of the great wrongness that has led to the current circumstances of murder in a small town, isolation, and the desperation of friendship.
Presented in a dreamy movement-heavy manner with a filmic score, Let the Right One In is consistently seductive, but in a manner completely inconsistent with vampire mythos. There is no desire for glamor or eternal life here. Instead the desire engendered by the play focuses on the methodical nature life in a small town, the strength to do what it is necessary, and the silencing power of snow.
Oskar’s encounters with bullies that help drive an otherwise languid narrative towards a jarring conclusion may be difficult for some audience members to endure. A significant number of effects involve copious stage blood, and one — thanks to the addition of excellent light and sound work — is genuinely terrifying thanks to the startle factor.
The performances are uniformly brave, but Rebecca Benson‘s demanding work as Eli possesses a disturbing intricacy that gyrates between flat and fey.
Ultimately, the show is driven by silence and physical language. And while the audience engages it as an often amused collective (Both Oskar and Eli are, at times, hilarious; and we are addressed in turn as concerned citizens and frightened children by police authorities as the murders in the town are investigated), after it was over it was difficult to speak, as if over its two-and-a-half hours we had all moved from identifying with Oskar to becoming something just a little bit like Eli.
My essay closes out the collection, and instead of being about any of the games I’m actually good at, it’s about the one I’m terrible at: Chess. It’s about how I learned to play, taught by my neighbors as a child. But it is also about my difficult family and the backdrop of pop- and political culture at the time. While I have always written personal essay that seems, I think revealing to others, and am often nostalgic about my childhood, the fact is my stories about me, my family, and my childhood are well-honed. This piece, written quite some time ago now (well over a year) was a first attempt at letting myself really talk about the corners of my childhood. As I’m increasingly working on doing both some fictional and memoir work about my weird teen life in queer NYC in the ’80s, having this essay be out in the world is scary and important and exciting to me.
Of course, also, what a time to be in an anthology called Chicks Dig Gaming. Regardless of the games we’ve written about (this book contains everything from video games to RPGs to LARPs to board games and more), I think it’s hard not to be nervous and excited. I’ve already seen one very positive review of the book that also noted some of its feminism hurt the reviewer’s feelings.
Which sort of really makes me wish I’d written about a game I don’t suck at as much as I suck at chess. But skill isn’t what makes someone a gamer. Love of the puzzle, of the art, of the technology, and of the social contexts that come with games are what make someone a gamer. Hell, just playing the game. Because that’s what is important about games: showing up, participating, giving it a go, and being open to the experience.
I hope you’ll be open to the experiences in Chicks Dig Gaming. My own copies just arrived, so I’ll be reading along with you.