A Tiny Piece of the Biggest Wheel of Cheese

A Tiny Piece of the Biggest Wheel of Cheese

A and I consider ourselves to be on top of the local food trend—just the other day, A and I rescued some tomato cages from someone’s curb.

“Pull over! Put your flashers on!” she cried, nearly spilling our leftover Thai food, because some lesbian stereotypes are true. Then she just jumped out and grabbed them, and now we have tomato cages. The circle of life continues.

My point is that we like locally grown food. And we like supporting local businesses. Especially the greatest deli in the world, right here in our little college town, a deli and bakery so great that President Obama and Oprah have praised their sandwiches, so renowned that people are all over the world order their food through the mail while all we have to do is drive into town and find a parking spot (which to be fair, sometimes takes longer). A has been hinting with all the subtlety of a hammer that I should take their regularly offered breadmaking classes. I’m 100% into it but I’ve been pretending to mull it over just to hear her attempt to pronounce “challah” correctly.

Stella and I went there for her birthday one year, and I bought us a piece of cake to split, since their cakes have six layers and a half slice is enough to put you in a sugar coma. We were mulling over which flavor to get (we went for “Death by Chocolate” of course, because we live dangerously) and a skinny college girl behind us, wearing one of those cute floral dresses that only young and skinny college girls wear, said to us, “The hummingbird cake is my favorite, that’s what I’m getting.”

“That does look good,” I said, since the hummingbird cake is toasted coconut, bananas, pecans and pineapple covered in the best cream cheese frosting you’ve ever had. These people know their frosting. There are classes where they teach you the secrets of their frosting.

We ordered our chocolate cake because we are old, post-college ladies who are stuck in our ways.  Stella went to the bathroom while I waited for our single slice, and the girl behind us stepped up to order.

“I’ll have the hummingbird,” she said.

“Just a slice?” said the cashier.

The girl thought for barely a moment. “No, the whole cake.”

“The whole cake?” said the cashier.

“The whole cake?” I whispered.

“The whole cake,” nodded the girl.

Both the cashier and I were genuinely impressed. When I was in college, I had to work up all my courage to ask for extra onions on a sandwich.

Stella and I had already started digging into our one measly gargantuan slice by the time the girl’s cake had been all wrapped up in its fancy signature box (this business has its own font and loves to show it off). The girl put on her sunglasses and strode out, confidently holding the box with one hand.

“Did she get a whole cake?” said Stella.

“She got the whole cake,” I said reverently. “It cost forty-five dollars.”

“But it’s Monday.”

“I know.”

“Is it exams week?”

“Some of the classes must have finals around now, don’t they?” I said. “I mean, what else could make someone go, ‘To hell with everything, I’m getting an entire cake on a Monday at four in the afternoon.’”

Anyway, our local internationally famous and beloved local institution was celebrating its 35th anniversary last week with an evening street fair in the farmers market offering samples of the best cheeses and meats from around the country—all for free!

I got a sample from a gigantic wheel of Parmesan cheese, which was honestly the best Parmesan cheese I’ve ever had. It was just crumbly enough to melt on the tongue, had a nice little flavor kick to it, delicious. And I’ve never seen a bigger wheel of cheese, so I feel some sense of accomplishment just knowing that I’ve both seen and sampled a wheel of cheese the size of a car tire.

We tried some artisan salted popcorn made Pennsylvania Dutch-style (I think it means that the person making it has to wear a jaunty farmer hat), and it was delicious.

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A had some acorn-fed prosciutto that was well-worth the wait in line. Even the line for crackers was at least seven minutes. The farmers market was geniunely stuffed with people, including all the requisite yoga moms and tattooed dads calling for kids named “Sterling.”

The gay dudes in front of us in the line for balsamic vinegar samples were already talking about the after-party at the gay bar across the street. We looked at each other hopefully, but A said, “Oh, that’s after 10, we’ll be asleep by then.”

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But the hottest ticket by far was the 20% off coupons at every stall—anything at the deli, from a meal to groceries to the hardcover books written by the super-hippie awesome owner of the whole business about how he runs his company with kindness and groovy vibes—was 20% off, for one day only.

One. Day. Only.

A was already strategizing. She could lead an army if their sole objective was to take over an organic produce store.

“If we each get a sandwich and I get all the groceries I’ll ever need, we’ll save so much. I’m going to try a bunch of new things. This is my chance to make this place my official bean purveyor.”

So A got two bags of beans: small bags, the size that you could comfortably hold in you hand, but they were still like twelve bucks. She also got some coffee and tea and I got some ten-dollar graham crackers (they’re worth it, trust me, you’ve never tasted a more amazing graham cracker).

We waited a good thirty minutes just to order our sandwiches (A busied herself by running around looking for more beans to try) and then another thirty for our sandwiches. The joint was jammed.

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Because the founder of this business is a hippie, the employees are actually well-paid and taken care of, and as such they are always exceptionally cheerful and eager to help. But the girl who brought out our sandwiches was uncharacteristically flustered. She apologized for the wait and I said, “It’s no problem, we knew what we were getting into by coming tonight!”

“We weren’t expecting this many people,” she said, in the hush tones reserved for hospital corridors.

I really felt for the staff, but if they hadn’t prepared for this level of insanity, they shouldn’t have tossed 20% off coupons to thousands of people like Evita Peron throwing money from the train car.

That night, in a graham cracker-induced frenzy, A realized that the heirloome beans she’d bought were a quarter of the price on Amazon.

“I gotta return these beans,” she said, in a tone of voice typically reserved for storming a beach.

I was skeptical, but like I said, this business is run purely on groovy vibes and exceptional customer services, so the very next morning, A was able to return her bags of beans.

We weren’t the only ones in line to return something. In the light of day, people had re-evaluated their purchases and realized, “I can’t eat this entire slab of cheese, I’m lactose intolerant.” “Why did I buy a full side of ham for two people?!” “I can’t keep a 200 year old bottle of balsamic vinegar in my dorm!”

“I exchanged my beans for bread, butter, and cheese,” reported A. “It’s a good trade.”

“It is a good trade,” I said. “It’d be an excellent trade for the Oregon Trail.”

God, I loved that game.

“Their bread is so expensive,” said A, through a mouthful of bread. “You gotta take that bread class.”

Long story short, I am taking a bread class. If all goes well, I’ll be just like Evita, handing out loaves of bread to random people on the street.

 

Thanksgiving at the Feral Cat Colony

Thanksgiving at the Feral Cat Colony

I didn’t realize until I first watched Grey Gardens as an adult that sharing my childhood home with a platoon of feral cats might be something people find alarming.

I’d always thought it was cool.

As far back as I can remember, we had cats living under our deck, inside my plastic playhouse on said deck, and in the woods just behind our house. My mom put out dry cat kibble for them every day—sometimes I would help if my seven-year-old motor skills were up to the task. My toddler sister and I would sit on the deck, watch the cats eat, and try to pet them if they would let us. Sometimes, my sister would eat the kibble, taking handfuls with her chubby baby hands and shoving them into her mouth like cereal.

Don’t worry, she’s fine. Did not affect her SAT scores at all.

All of the cats had names, most of which were picked by yours truly. There were several Simbas and Nalas, Aladdins and Jasmines. I took my naming duties very seriously. The cat’s name and disposition had to complement each other perfectly.

The meanest cat, the one that always hissed and tried to bite us, her name was Barbara. I named her after my ballet teacher.

I didn’t think anything of the fact that I couldn’t use my plastic playhouse on our deck, because the feral cats were hunkered down inside. Sometimes a kid would come over and give me a weird look when they asked if we could play in the playhouse and I said, “No, that’s the cats’ playhouse,” but I never thought anything of it.

The cats’ playhouse was actually my second playhouse. The first one was picked up by a tornado.

Every Thanksgiving, we had a lot of leftovers, since we never had many people over, and I steadfastly refused to eat turkey every year. I ate a bagel with strawberry jelly instead.

Not wanting anything to go to waste, my mom would march down the deck steps and into the yard, holding the turkey carcass high in front of her like a sacrificial offering, and set it right on the boundary of our house and the woods, so the neighbors wouldn’t see.

My sister and I would watch from the window as the cats emerged from the trees and under our deck and inside my playhouse, followed by crows and ravens and hawks that would squawk from their perches on the power lines, waiting for their turn, and more and more cats would descend onto the carcass until we couldn’t see it anymore, just the fog of cats and the ring of cawing birds above them, and by the morning, the turkey would be completely gone.

We moved to a new house after I started middle school. It was in a nice subdivision, with manicured lawns and identical mailboxes and no trees higher than a few feet. Our cat colony had dwindled by then, most of its members taken to the no-kill shelter or given to friendly homes by then. My mom declared that she wasn’t going to feed feral cats at our new house. Our new neighbors would never stand for it, she said.

But there was a single empty lot at the end of our street. And even in the most sterile of subdivisions, we heard coyote howls and occasionally saw a scampering fox at night. So every Thanksgiving, as soon as it got dark, my mom would sneak down the street holding the turkey carcass high in front of her. The empty lot was a good quarter mile away, and she was always terrified that one of our neighbors would drive up and see her in their headlights holding a platter of meat and bones, but she got enough of a hustle going even with the heavy turkey to avoid detection. I usually accompanied her with a flashlight, which I was only allowed to turn on once we’d reached the lot and the coast was clear. She’d set the carcass down behind a pile of dirt or in a shallow hole to hide it, and then we’d run back to our house like we’d committed a crime. Before dawn, all the evidence would vanish.

Of course, after a few years that lot was bought and a house was built on top of it. We watched the construction through our window, and my dad said, “Should we tell the new owners about all the turkeys?”

My mom said, “Absolutely not. Don’t even speak to them. You’ll sing like a canary.”

So, my parents only wave to those neighbors.

And every time I go home to visit and drive past that house, and wave to the neighbors working on their perfectly manicured lawn or picking up the mail from their identical mailbox, I say to myself, “That house is built on top of at least seven turkey skeletons.”

 

A Whole Zoo of Peacocks

A Whole Zoo of Peacocks

The little zoo was cheap and small and I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest, but we were astounded.

“Are you here for the birthday party?” asked the parking attendant, and we joked that we should have said yes, but I guarantee that the kids at that birthday party had a crap time compared to us.

We were even wowed by the parking lot, where teenage geese were scampering along the riverbank. The car behind us was very polite and did not honk, even though we spent several minutes at a standstill, shrieking at these geese.

“I don’t care what happens from this point on,” I said as we entered the zoo proper. “The geese were worth the price of admission.”

The first animals we saw were these delightful river otters that actually scampered out of the brush in tandem to greet us with a synchronized belly-flop into their pool. We were hooked—and then we noticed that one of the otters was missing his left legs, front and back, and had only a stub for a tail. His mother had overgroomed him, leading to infections that required amputation, said the sign, but he got around just fine and was an inspiration to all who cared for him.

A and I were so moved we almost bought his college education right there. Lesbians love plucky animals with missing limbs.

This otter scampered around on his stump and swum around despite his ungainly tail and he slid down the little ramp on his tummy into the pool and chased his friend through a patch of dandelions and it’s a wonder A and I aren’t still there.

We somehow managed to drag ourselves away to see the rest of the animals, and it gradually dawned on us that the zoo was completely overrun with peacocks.

The first two or three or seven didn’t faze me. Most zoos have some, three or four, not nearly enough to populate a generously sized condo complex.

For every human employee, there were at least eight or nine peacocks. I’m not exaggerating. Every time we turned a corner, there were peacocks,but oddly enough, no females. Where were all these peacocks coming from?

Were they all gay peacock couples? Did they adopt eggs or use a surrogate?

There was an enclosure for a kind of South American rodent, the cavy, and they had a little rabbit hutch, and we were watching the rabbit hutch to try to spot the cavys, and a peacock came out of it. He had to duck his head to get through the door, but he didn’t mind. He bobbed his head at us as if to say, “Oh hello there. I sublet from these nice folks.”

I still don’t know what a cavy looks like.

There was a peacock on the roof next to the moose enclosure, where the moose was currently off on a business trip or something, and since there were no zookeepers around, I had half a mind to ask the peacock when the moose would be back.

We exited the reptile house, and there was a peacock on the roof, another on the fence, one coming up the path to greet us, and another hanging out in the next enclosure—and no humans to be seen.

Alfred Hitchcock would’ve enjoyed this zoo.

“It’s the peacock mafia,” whispered A. She got really close to one to see what it would do and it squawked at her, so she was afraid of angering them.

I wondered if this little zoo outside Lansing was secretly the premier vacation spot for gay peacocks, like Provincetown for gay humans.

“All these peacocks are wondering what humans are doing here,” I said. “’Oh, look at all these straight humans with kids. They’re going to ruin our spot.’”

There wasn’t a lot of staff around, but the peacocks seemed to be running things smoothly. I imagined the board meetings for the zoo were just a group of peacocks sitting in office chairs around a table. “Let’s review the quarterly report! All in favor? Squawk! Squawk! Squawk!”

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A peacock actually walked up to us by the rhino enclosure (which was occupied by both a rhino and an obese groundhog that seemed to come and go as it liked), and puffed up its feathers, then did that slow beauty pageant turn that all peacocks do when they’re on full display.

“Why do they do that drag queen turn?” said A.

“I think he’s introducing himself,” I said. “’Good afternoon, I’m the CFO of our zoological society, may we discuss your donation opportunities?”

Trust me, I observed so much peacock behavior that I could be an expert.

The peacocks weren’t scared of anything. They hung out in front of the lion and tiger enclosures, and they were within striking distance of the snow leopard, but they didn’t care.

One of the lions looked like a young male, but we were informed by the sole zookeeper who wasn’t a peacock that the lion was actually an older female, and the effects of birth control and aging hormones had caused her to grow a very fetching mane. The zookeeper, who may have been a peacock in disguise, now that I think about it, told us that even in the wild, females with manes have been documented.

It’s probably the result of menopause, and a sign of great achievement of sorts since a wild lioness would have to survive a lot to even get to that point in life, but the zookeeper seemed to think that there might be some willful component to it. That in a pride without a male protector, one or two of the females will grow manes in order to appear domineering and scare unwanted visitors away.

There are a lot of gay lions, why not trans lions?

I stared into this lion’s eyes, watched her lick her gigantic paws and do battle with a plastic bucket that was surely regretting whatever it did in a past life to deserve its end in a lion’s jaws.

The lion’s eyes were deep and dark with a ring of sunlit gold. And suddenly the glass did not seem thick enough. I felt sorry for the lion, living out her days in a zoo in the Midwest, far from the savannah, but her eyes were steel and sunlight. To her, I was in the cage.

By the way, if you ever need a vivid picture of what a wild animal could do to your skull, watch a lion play with a plastic bucket.

The only place where we were free from the peacocks stalking us was the gift shop, but even they sold cuddly stuffed versions of the peacocks.

I’m sure some nearsighted child has made a dash to grab a cute toy peacock only to startle an actual peacock taking a nap on the shelf.

And then that peacock ruffled its feathers and got back to working the register.

“This was a great zoo,” said A, as we left. “Wow, we saw a lot of cocks today!”

A single peacock feather lay on the pavement before us at the gate, bidding us a silent farewell.

My Fake Aunt and Uncle’s Real Exploding Waterbed

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Yes, that’s me. My parents took me to Boca because at four years old I acted like I was eighty-five.

I had a fake aunt and uncle as a kid. They only lived a few minutes away, but in the suburbs, in the early ‘90s, they may as well have lived in a different universe. They were “very California,” which was their compliment for everything. They loved wine and jazz and salad tongs. Their house had a lot of kaleidoscopes. They owned not one, not two, but three rainsticks of varying sizes. 

As a little kid, I stayed with them at least one weekend every month, and when I did, I slept in a waterbed.

If you’ve never slept in a waterbed, don’t.

If you are ever tempted to sleep in a waterbed, ask yourself if you’ve ever gotten a proper night’s sleep on a pool float.

My fake aunt kind of looked like Demi Moore, back when Demi Moore was the actress everyone wanted to look like. My fake uncle did not look like a movie star at all, but sometimes he wore a beret, and it looked terrific.

Sometimes he couldn’t hear very well because he’d just blown out an eardrum while scuba diving. We didn’t live anywhere near an optimal scuba diving environment, but he managed to find one.

They claimed they had a cat, but I never saw it. I think its name was Rainbow, which is an appropriate name for a cat that may or may not be imaginary. 

When I was five, my fake aunt got obsessed with Twin Peaks, like all the cool people did in the early ‘90s. “You’ll like it, it’s got little people in it, like The Wizard of Oz,” she said.

One time we watched Twin Peaks in the basement during a tornado, and I was afraid the house would be picked up and dropped, Dorothy-style, in Twin Peaks.

“That would be amazing,” said my fake aunt. “Let’s go outside!”

My fake aunt once let me take a bath during a thunderstorm, and I was convinced that I would die.

Their staircase had black spindles rather than white ones, and this was fascinating to me, because in every TGIF sitcom that I watched, the spindles were bright white, creating a sense of optimistic, comforting blandness as well as a nice visual whenever a small child inevitably got their head stuck between them. According to TV, a kid getting their head stuck between spindles was an average Friday night in the suburbs.

An average Friday night at my fake aunt and uncle’s involved a lot of wine and an attempt at playing one of their didgeridoos.

They had four.

“You have to cycle your breathing, like the Aborigines,” my fake uncle would say.

My fake aunt and uncle liked to ruin independent movies for me. In the early ‘90s, the heyday of Miramax, they were my version of Internet spoilers for films that I was way too young to see, but was still fascinated by, thanks to my daily devouring of the scintillating cinematic coverage in USA Today.

“We saw The Crying Game last night,” said my fake aunt. “It’s very good. You should see it … when you’re older, of course.”

I was only seven, but I knew what The Crying Game was because USA Today had run a pie chart called, “Do you know the twist of The Crying Game?”

“No, you should see it now,” said my fake uncle. “Before someone ruins it for you. The girl is a guy.”

My fake aunt yelled at my fake uncle for telling me the twist, but over the following two years she managed to ruin both The Piano and Pulp Fiction for me. My fake aunt and uncle loved Pulp Fiction. They dressed as John Travolta and Uma Thurman for Halloween. No one knew who they were.

When their daughter came home from college, she and her friend Kevin would read Magic School Bus books to me on the waterbed.

“The water cycle just blows my mind,” Kevin would say, with big wide eyes.

Kevin was very good at playing the didgeridoo. I bet he caused the waterbed explosion.

For my eighth birthday, my fake aunt and uncle took me to a Manheim Steamroller concert.

That same year, I lost a tooth while I was staying with them, and the Tooth Fairy left me an envelope under my waterbed pillow that was filled with loose change—most of it Canadian—and a note that said, “Thank you for the tooth! Love, Auntie.”

When I was nine, the waterbed exploded. Through a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events, the waterbed explosion started a small fire as well as a major flood. A big silver cassette player shorted out from the water damage, and then melted.

The early ‘90s were quite a dangerous time. 

My fake aunt and uncle were the first people I knew who had one of those coded keypads for their garage door. They bought it because their garage door kept mysteriously opening in the middle of the night, even after they got the keypad. Finally, when my fake uncle went out in his John Travolta costume to confront the culprits, he found a trio of raccoons. 

Every Doll Needs a Hot Air Balloon

Every Doll Needs a Hot Air Balloon

I started grad school just before the recession, which is a horrifying thing to both say and experience. I went to school in the Twin Cities and I didn’t have a car, and the thing they don’t tell you about Minneapolis is that it’s uninhabitable for half of the year, so I liked to take the bus and then the train to the Mall of America.

If you need concrete proof that we live in a dystopian capitalistic hellscape, go to the Mall of America during a recession. That shit is bleak. But once you have a smoothie and ride a few escalators up and down, it’s actually kind of relaxing.

My friend Maggie and I would hang out at the American Girl Store on Friday nights. We always had the place to ourselves. There’d be one lonely employee braiding a display doll’s hair—in bountiful times, they hire three or four hairdressers just for the dolls, but I guess the dolls were cutting back too.

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No one looks this happy at the American Girl doll salon. Well, the doll has the same expression no matter what.

At one point we saw a double stroller facing a wall, and Maggie assumed someone had abandoned actual children.

“Oh my god! Someone left their babies!” she cried. “What is going on in this country?”

The babies were actually display versions of the twin baby doll set that cost one hundred and fifty dollars. Because we teach little girls that having twins is the most magical experience a woman can have, getting to dress babies identically and push a sweet double stroller and then you grow up and realize that twins would destroy both your vagina and your life savings, but that’s another post.

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Now, if I had twins, I would put overalls on both but with different shirts that would complement each other and darn it, what have you done to me, American Girl?

Maggie would always rail against American Girl dolls for being materialistic and giving little girls unrealistic expectations. She grew up really poor (and not just poor for a grad student, she was below the poverty line. Her family’s phone was the pay phone at the gas station), so it was understandably offensive to her that the dolls that were supposed to represent the “girls of today” always had fancy clothes and bunk beds and gymnastics equipment and everyone had at least one horse.

Even the historical dolls had too much money.

“This doll is supposed to be an immigrant in 1914 in New York and she has a full bedroom set?” I said. “She’s supposed to live in a tenement.”

“Is that like a duplex?” said Maggie.

“My grandma grew up in a tenement that was two rooms big, with ten brothers and sisters,” I said. “She didn’t have a four-poster bed, she had ringworm.”

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If my grandma had lived to see this, she would have laughed and then told a story about how her pajamas and bedsheets were made from old flour sacks.

I was excited to tell Maggie that the new doll for 2009, the year after the recession, was going to be a homeless girl named Gwen Thompson.

Maggie was pumped up. She was like, “Let’s go the mall right now.”

We went to the American Girl Store, empty as always, like the entire mall, with desperation and pop music leaching from the walls. There is an aquarium underneath the Mall of America—how much money does it take to keep the lights on all night in that thing?

Maggie was very gregarious—she befriended a sniper once, but that’s another tale—and she walked right up to the lone employee, braiding a doll’s hair, and said, “Where’s the homeless doll?”

“She’s not homeless!” shouted the employee.

I should mention the fact that at this very moment, the American Girl Company was getting serious Internet flack about selling a doll for over one hundred dollars that was supposed to be homeless. None of their dolls were ever going to see the inside of a homeless shelter. Not unless Daddy Warbucks started hanging around.

“Doesn’t she live in her car?” said Maggie.

“She lives in her van, and for only a few days,” said the employee, who I should mention was probably not making enough to buy anything from this store, because capitalist hellscape.

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Gwen Thompson, the doll who lived in a van by the river

She pointed us towards the doll, and Maggie was dismayed to find that Gwen Thompson lived in a van that by all standards qualified as a camper—the roof was high enough to fit a loft bed, and the side of the van folded out into a nice picnic table, and there was a cute little wardrobe for her accessories, which included a laptop.

She was actually doing very well for a nine-year-old. Her van was more like a tiny house for grade-school hipsters going off the grid. She even had the means for outdoor activities.

Maggie was not happy.

“How did she get a hot air balloon?” she said. “She can’t afford that!”

 

 

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The Delightful Tale of Incest Karen

The Delightful Tale of Incest Karen

I should start with a disclaimer. No, this isn’t a dark story. It’s not going where you think it’s going. I’ve changed all the names purely for my own peace of mind, and in fact, the entire incest element was entirely assumed by the warped mind of yours truly.

I mean, everyone else in the class was thinking it.

There is a moment in every grad student’s life when you’re sitting in class and this feeling hits you, and its name is “I have made a terrible mistake,” or “What am I doing here?” or “Who are these people?”

And then there’s the class that hits you will all three, every class, for the entire semester.

This class, for me, was a class called “Inspired by the Visual,” that I thought would be all about the fine art side of writing, where we’d talk about great illustrators and graphic novelists or really get into the grit of how to visually describe a scene and make characters appear fully-formed in the mind’s eye of the reader. For someone who got into writing only because they realized that Disney Animation doesn’t hire people who can’t draw a proper circle, it sounded perfect. My friend Eleanor was taking it with me, so I was feeling great about it.

Until the first class, when it quickly became apparent that this was more of an art therapy type of deal, where we would be making dioramas out of Popsicle sticks and Starburst wrappers and then talking about how it represented our parents getting divorced. I’m all for using arts and crafts to improve one’s emotional well-being, but grad school is expensive, and spending thousands of dollars to do something that I could do for ten bucks at a craft store made me a little crazy.

And spending three hours a week listening to twenty other adults talk in depth about their Popsicle stick projects? No thank you. Most people half-assed it like I did—putting the minimum amount of effort into their projects, focusing more on their writing and what they were actually in school to do, so it wasn’t as excruciating as it could have been.

Except, of course, for Incest Karen.

Our first assignment for the class was to bring in an object and talk about it as it was passed around the room, as a way of introducing ourselves. I brought a tiny porcelain figure of a sumo wrestler that I had just bought, as a symbol of the feeling that I had to fight my way through grad school and the world at large in spite my own fragilities and lack of self-esteem (I didn’t say any of this, of course. I said “I have a tiny sumo wrestler in my heart,” and everyone chuckled politely).

And then this girl next to me, Karen, passed around a tiny wooden box with two razor blades inside. Blackened, crusty razor blades covered in grubby fragments of fingerprints. I didn’t touch them, but other people were inspecting them, holding them up to the light, you know, trying to be engaged as Karen described them in a monotone.

Eleanor was sitting on my other side, and I warned her not to touch them either.

“Why not?” she asked.

Without thinking, I whispered, “Those are cutting blades. I know it.”

Eleanor scoffed, “Don’t worry, they’re not cutting blades,” just as Karen droned, “I cut myself with these blades every day of ninth grade.”

Eleanor abruptly slammed the box shut.

“Told you,” I whispered.

Karen quickly established herself as that person in class who waits until just the right moment when the conversation is gelling and everyone’s in a good headspace with lots of energy to grab the wheel and just swerve the whole thing right over a cliff. If someone bravely shared a story about a traumatic incident or difficult time in their past, Karen had to top it. She couldn’t even let the woman whose son had just passed away have the floor for longer than a few seconds. Even the professor, who radiated good hippie vibes and praised my Spartan helmet made of chocolate wrappers glued to a cardboard box as “really inspired!” could not stand Karen and her personification of the sad trumpet noise, but there was no reining her in. And, as we learned on the last day of class, she was just getting warmed up.

For our final project, we had to submit and read out loud a fifteen-page document of our choice. It could be a story, an essay, a selection of poems, something we’d been working on for another class, rules and restrictions need not apply. I read a condensed conversation with my sister where she defended her views on fine art (I began with, “Remind me what you said when you first saw Monet’s waterlilies?” “‘Those don’t look like flowers,'” she said. “I mean, they really don’t”).

I got some solid laughs and a polite smattering of applause and suddenly I felt good about my decisions in life for the first time in a little while. Maybe taking this class hadn’t been a terrible mistake after all, I thought. Isn’t art wonderful?

And then, Karen cleared her throat and began to read. She had submitted a portion of her non-fiction thesis, which she described as “One hundred and forty pages about my relationship with my older brother and how it changed forever when he married my friend, who is also named Karen.”

I looked at Eleanor with giant eyes and mouthed, “Is she in love with her brother?”

Ever the optimist, Eleanor rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “Don’t be silly, I read a thesis like that every day.”

The professor’s voice had a tremor of trepidation as she invited Karen to continue. But Karen needed no invitation. She launched into page one of fifteen: “I love my brother Henry very much. He is the only soulmate I will ever have.”

The tiny sumo wrestler in my heart said, “Uh-oh.”

In short: Henry and Karen did everything together, told each other everything, and had all the same friends. They were only a year or two apart in school, so everyone—teachers, friends, and family—treated them like a unit. They were good friends with another girl in Henry’s year, also named Karen, and heretofore known as “Other Karen,” which everyone called her, even Henry, even after he and Other Karen started dating.

Other Karen and Henry went off to college together. Unbeknownst to Karen, they started getting more serious. One day, Karen was at her high school locker when she got a text from Henry. The text said, “I’m going to ask Karen to marry me.”

This is not a joke or an exaggeration. Karen described—in detail, her voice catching with tears—how her first thought upon reading the text was that Henry was going to propose to her, Sister Karen, and how her heart leapt with joy, and then shattered when a second text clarified that Henry was actually proposing to Other Karen, and finally crumbled into dust at the third text:

“She said yes!”

This all happened in the days before smartphones, so Henry must have been jamming a button three times for each letter, all in front of his newly crowned fiancée, but hey, his sister was his soulmate.

We were now about a third of the way though the fifteen pages. In deference to her importance to Henry, Other Karen asked Karen to be her maid of honor. Karen only accepted to make Henry happy. She described at great length just how agonizing the wedding preparations were for her, how she had to pretend to be happy even though watching Other Karen twirl in potential wedding dresses made her stomach clench.

Judging from the faces of the other students and the professor, it was a familiar feeling to us all.

Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. Karen paused for a moment to whip out her visual aide. It was a photo album—one of those cute little white ones with bows and plastic covers, that remind you of something in your grandmother’s house so they’re inherently comforting even when the plastic breaks and digs into your fingers?

Karen passed the album to Eleanor first. I was sitting on Eleanor’s other side.

“There’s going to be pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out,” I whispered.

Eleanor scoffed, “You always assume the worst,” but she hesitated a bit before opening the album.

Fortunately, there were no pictures of Other Karen with her eyes scratched out, because there were no pictures of Other Karen at all. Karen had only included pictures of herself with Henry, smiling in the back of the limo, arms around each other in front of the church, laughing at the reception, all framed in such a way that it was clear that someone had been cut out to make a Karen and Henry two-shot. Was that someone a great-aunt, a cousin nobody liked, a friend invited out of pity? Or the bride?

As the album made its way around the table, Karen hurtled into the finale. She walked down the aisle ahead of Other Karen, and everyone oohed and ahhed and took pictures of her, and she was so happy to have all the eyes of everyone she knew in the world on her, as “Here Comes the Bride” started up on the organ. Yes, Other Karen was now behind her, but Karen didn’t notice. She had the floor. She took her place beside the bride as Henry appeared in the doorway of the church.

Karen’s falling tears were blurring the words on the page, but she was speaking from the heart now. I remember this verbatim:

“All of time stood still as I watched the man I loved walk towards me, with all the love in the world in his eyes, eager and excited to begin our lives together, and our eyes were locked in love all the way down the aisle . . . and then he turned slightly to the left, and it was over. He and Other Karen said their vows, and he wasn’t my Henry anymore.”

I mean, that’s one hell of a final paragraph. I wonder if that’s how the entire thesis ended.

The professor was blinking with one eye at a time, like a malfunctioning doll. Everyone else in the class just stared and cleared their throats as Karen tucked her pages away. I caught Eleanor’s eye and mouthed, “I told you.”

That night, I told our other friend Maggie all about our last day of class. She immediately accused me of embellishing, or flat-out making stuff up, both of which I do all the time, but not in this case. To my surprise, Eleanor, who had been silently drinking tea with a look of remembered horrors in her eyes, spoke up in my defense.

“It’s 100% true,” she said. “Elizabeth told me she was in love with her brother, and I didn’t believe her, and she was right. This girl is going to get the same degree as the three of us with a non-fiction thesis about being in love with her brother.”

And that was the day the three of us began to seriously discuss whether or not we should transfer schools.

All the Cool Kids are Shipping EdFord

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Flower game on point!

I know it’s in fashion to wildly speculate about the sexuality of various historical figures and label them as this and that through our biased modern lens, but having said that, Henry Ford was totally gay for Thomas Edison.

If you’ve been to the Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village on a visit or a school field trip, you already know this. When I was little, before I even knew what gay was, or that I was gay, I knew that Henry Ford was in love with Thomas Edison.

As the hippie teachers told us, Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s childhood hero, and Ford worked hard and grew up to collaborate with Edison and then they became such good friends that they took yearly camping trips together!

(I had a similar childhood fantasy involving Laura Dern after Jurassic Park. It could still happen! I’d never make her go camping though).

When Edison was dying, Ford asked Edison’s son to capture his father’s last breath in a vial, and that vial is on prominent display at the museum (which was originally called The Edison Institute, because nothing says love like naming your personal museum after someone else).

“Ford asked for Edison’s last breath in a test tube” is presented as a completely rational thing to ask a person when their father is about to die.

I could never tell if there really was a last breath in the test tube, or even any breath at all, and even as a child on field trips, I wondered why Ford would ask such a thing of a guy trying to spend his final moments with his dying father? Did Ford do something weird involving that bottle?

As a kid, I imagined Ford sucking the air out of the vial and assuming Edison’s essence like a bombastic ‘90s cartoon villain. Now I think of . . . other things.

I don’t want to drag the image of an accomplished man through the mud, but Ford was a vicious anti-Semitic, union-crushing supervillain who shoved Michigan under the yolk of the car industry, destroying public transportation in this entire country and dooming our state’s economy forever.

And Edison was a patent troll who stole his greatest inventions, sued every competitor into ruin, and publicly electrocuted elephants to scare people into buying his stuff and his stuff only. He also overworked and underpaid his workers, most of whom he’d handpicked from poor backgrounds, so he could take the credit for their inventions—and all the profits. He singlehandedly held back the film industry for decades because he’d created a monopoly on moviemaking technology, all of which he stole from someone else. You can look that up.

I’m not trying to start a flame war fought with pocketwatches on Edison or Ford, I’m just saying, maybe they deserved each other. Nothing forges the fires of intense man-on-man bonding like unrepentant capitalism.

My best friend Stella brought me a magnet from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida.

“Isn’t it great that we’re at a point in our lives where the highlight of our vacations are tours of historical houses?” she said, before telling me all the details of the tour.

As if having their names combined for eternity at the site of their neighboring homes wasn’t gay enough, allow me to present the following evidence with my best knowing smirk.

1) Edison built his house in Fort Myers and designed every detail personally, but once he moved in, Henry Ford bought the adjacent house so they could live next to each other. Didn’t change a thing about the house, didn’t buy new furniture, just bought the previous homeowner out and moved right in. Can’t you just hear the judgment in the House Hunters’ narrator’s voice describing that decision?

2) Edison had a laboratory on his estate, which Ford wanted so badly for Greenfield Village that he promised to build Edison a pool and a greenhouse to replace it. That lab is still at Greenfield Village, you can walk around inside it (shameless plug!), and Edison got his greenhouse and pool.

Did the two of them relax poolside in matching beach chairs, clinking pina coladas to technology?

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I can’t imagine sitting on a beach chair in formal wear

3) Ford loved Edison SO. MUCH that after Edison died, Ford returned to his own home in Fort Myers just one more time. On the tour, they said that Ford couldn’t bear to stay in the state of Florida once Edison was gone. He didn’t take any of his stuff with him or have the furniture moved out. He abandoned the place as if fleeing grief-stricken in the middle of the night. I imagine much clucking of tongues and raised eyebrows among the servants.

How has this story not become a musical yet? Someone call Lin-Manuel Miranda and say, “You still want to beat that Tony record?”

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This could be the poster! I’ve done 80% of the work already!
Mongolian BBQ for 2

Mongolian BBQ for 2

In our college town, we encounter a lot of students working their first real jobs. Some are hungover, but most of them are adorable, like the cute little hipster with ear gauges at the co-op who says “I’m not emotionally prepared for this big a transaction!” if you buy more than a muffin, or the masseuse that A went to at the gas station that was converted into a massage parlor who said, “You have a ton of tension in your head!” and then never did any work on her head.

And then there was Tiffany.

We rolled into the Mongolian barbecue place for a late lunch, having never been there before. It was a dreary Sunday, and we both had beanies on because we were too lazy to fix our hair, that kind of day.

A tiny ball of dynamite and shiny teeth bopped over to our table.

“Hi! I’m Tiffany! Welcome to Mongolian Barbecue! Have you been here before?”

“Uh, no—”

“That’s great! Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what to do! You start with the meat at the far end there, then go to vegetables! THEN YOU PICK YOUR SAUCES AND SPICES! BUT GO EASY ON THE SPICES! DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS?”

“Actually, where’s your bathroom?”

“THAT’S A GREAT QUESTION! Go to the far left wall, then turn towards the back wall! IT’S NOT ON THE LEFT WALL! What would you like to drink? And would you like tortillas or lettuce wraps with your stir-fry? Never mind! It’s your first time here, I’ll bring out everything! BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE YET!”

“Okay, that’s a good idea,” I said, very calmly, like I was negotiating with a deer who was trying to sell us a car. “Can we have rice?”

“YES! I’ll bring two bowls of rice! If you get overwhelmed, don’t worry! There are recipe cards on the back wall! Okay? OKAY! GO UP WHENEVER YOU’RE READY!”

Tiffany had on a bright blue Underarmor headband and a ponytail that was completely vertical. She was the kind of girl who perpetually looks like they just got out of field hockey practice.

After getting our stir-fry bowls, and being treated to a very interesting story about how our cook was kicked out of school on the last day of senior year for starting a food fight (“You think they’re just fun! But people get hurt!”), I returned to the table while A went to the bathroom—which was labeled, “mongals,” clever—to find our drinks, our tortillas and lettuce wraps, and one bowl of rice.

I wouldn’t have said anything since I trusted Tiffany with my life at this point, but she happened to roll by on a skateboard to ask if we needed anything, and I said, “Just another rice when you get a chance,” to which she chirped, “Oh, I didn’t forget! They’re making a new pot! I’ll bring it right over when it’s done!” and merrily skipped away.

A came back from the bathroom and before she sat down, immediately started a conversation about health and the law, as she does. “It must be hard for places like this to stick to the health codes,” she said. “I mean, we dropped a ton of stuff on the floor, and I spilled my sauce on the counter. I handled a lot of slip and fall cases as a litigator!”

“I’d assume that their first problem would be food poisoning,” I said. “They have ten different kinds of seafood just sitting out all day.”

“Ooh, I didn’t even think of that,” said A, reaching for her first spoonful of rice.

Out of nowhere, Tiffany screamed, “DON’T EAT THAT!”

A and I froze in place, like she’d ordered us to hit the deck for incoming missile fire. But Tiffany just gave us two new bowls of rice and explained, “That was literally the last scoop of rice in the whole pot! I had to scrape it off the sides! These are freshly cooked!” and then she zoomed away so fast she left a shadow in her place.

A’s spoon was still quivering in mid-air, like the Jello scene in Jurassic Park.

I’m pretty sure that in food service, the number one thing you’re not supposed to say is “Don’t eat that!” Even in a friendly, casual manner, it just doesn’t come off right.

“Hey, don’t eat that, no worries!” Doesn’t work.

Tiffany took the drink order for the table behind us while we were eating—a woman ordered a Bahama Mama off the menu, and Tiffany said, “Oh, I don’t know how to make that, but I’ll Google it and bring it right out!”

A smacked her own forehead and whispered, “Oh my god, Tiffany, you never tell the customer that you don’t know how to do something.”

Tiffany whirred back to the table and said to this woman, “A Bahama Mama has coconut liqueur in it, is that okay? Is that what you want? DO YOU WANT THAT?” She leaned in super close and got really intense about it—like this was a secret transaction. The woman said, “Yes, that’s fine!” the way that people being interrogated say, “I’ll tell you whatever you want! Just call off the hounds!”

Tiffany would actually make an amazing spy.

Fun fact: less than two months later, I got food poisoning from that very restaurant. Tiffany wasn’t there to protect me. I guess that’s on me.