Between training for a marathon, working, planning a wedding, and being social, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to write. True writers will remark that all of this “busy-ness” is really a wonderful distraction to writing, which is probably true, but I also find that the busier I am, the happier I am, and the happier I am, the more peace I bring when I do actually sit down to write.
Like many creative people I know, I like to carve out time to be creative by doing a whole lot of other stuff first – cleaning, emptying the dishwasher, watering the plants, grocery shopping, rearranging my shoes, aligning the 47 TV remotes, and other household chores. It’s only when all of that other stuff is done that I find I can sit down and relax, pull up a blank screen, and just begin to write.
This summer, my fiancé I got to spend two luxurious days in Chicago with one of my best friends and her husband. We spent a lot of time sampling beers, strolling around, looking at architecture, and eating ridiculously good food. On one such wandering walk, I picked up a book about writing – 642 Things to Write About. This pretty much dismantles the complaint of “I don’t know what to write about,” because there’s no false advertising here – it literally is a book with a list of 642 Things to Write About.
It’s a Saturday afternoon (which is my “Sunday” – our weekends in the UAE are Friday-Saturday, as Friday is the holy day), and it’s a brisk 102 degrees outside. The kitchen is clean, I went grocery shopping earlier, the plants are watered, and the cats are happily napping in their various nap places around the flat. We have dinner plans with friends tonight but, for the first time in a long time, I find myself with “downtime.” I’m not running or working or sleeping, which means it’s time to write. I’ve cracked open a Sambrook’s Battersea Rye and I’ve got my pumpkin-nutmeg candle burning. These are all imperative to the creative process. And so, I introduce to you the first of what I hope will be a series of these Things to Write About.
Thing to Write About #1 – The Worst Thanksgiving Dish You Ever Had (Slightly Fiction)
His nickname was “Dawson,” because he looked vaguely like the foreheady vanilla lead character of the teen drama. Except he was nothing like that guy. He was really into jam bands and Doc Martens, lived exclusively in American Eagle Outfitters wear, and conveniently lived in the dorm next to mine freshman year. I met him at a party one night and decided that he’d make an excellent candidate for my first college boyfriend, partially because he made me laugh and mostly because he was available. Also, he had the hemp-pookah shell necklace that was all the rage in the fall of 2000. Sold.
We dated for approximately three months before beginning the typical and exhausting college tradition of breaking up and getting back together over the course of the next six months, only to finally peter itself out right before the end of spring semester and we broke up for good just in time for summer pool parties. But Thanksgiving was a crucial period of time for introducing family members to your second major accomplishment of your first college semester (not failing out being the first) – securing a boyfriend – and, for whatever reason, we both decided that two months of following each other around campus constituted a “relationship” worthy of presentation at a major holiday.
When I say “we both decided,” I mean that I decided, and demanded that he come. He didn’t seem to mind – his own family holidays were a patchwork of fun complications including parents not on speaking terms – and, over a late dinner of dining hall spaghetti and tiny glasses of apple juice, I politely requested that he bring his “nice pants” (thick-grain corduroys) and his dressy Doc Martens (the unscuffed brown ones) and that he wear cologne as opposed to the omnipresent whiff of cultivated green stuff. He politely inquired about “separate beds” (yes), availability of alcohol (none apart from a responsible glass or two of wine at dinner with the parents), and if he should make a mixed CD for the two-hour drive (of course).
When Thanksgiving weekend rolled around, however, he employed some classic stalling techniques that would take me another ten years and five relationships to figure out equated to “disinterest.” He wasn’t packed and ready to go by three on the day before Thanksgiving as requested, and his roommate said he hadn’t seen him since lunch. His best buddy – the one usually responsible for the cultivated green stuff – was also nowhere to be found, which should have been obvious to me, but wasn’t. I folded more laundry and watched another three episodes of Felicity wondering why I didn’t go to school in New York City where I surely could have bagged a more interesting set of problems. One potential ride left, and another was blowing up my AOL Instant Messenger about when we could conceivably get going. Finally, around six thirty, Dawson appeared at my door looking slightly disheveled and unequivocally having partaken of at least two of the items I had expressly forbidden on the trip. He also had, right smack in the middle of his forehead, a gigantic boil of a pimple that had appeared sometime between when I’d seen him last night and just now. It stared at me, a third eye, just as red as his other two.
“Are we still going?” he asked. I just stared at him. I was new to this ambiguous and rhetorical line of questioning that boys will employ when what they really mean is: “Soooo, what are the chances I can get out of this thing?”
“YES,” I said, exasperated, also unaware that this would have been my cue to disentangle both of us from this mess with dignity. To say, “You know what? No worries, you’re clearly busy and you should probably take the next couple of days to detox your pimple,” and head home and spend Thanksgiving weekend making pies with my mom and crying about stupid boys and realizing that I’m only a freshmen and I many years yet to find a much more desirable partner. Instead, I was thinking, terrified, of the shame of showing up to a major family event alone after having gushed to everyone about The Boy I Was Bringing Home For Thanksgiving.
“Ok,” he said, slowly, “but…I just have this…thing…” he pointed vaguely in the direction of the crater on his forehead.
“Whatever, it’s fine. It’s not that bad,” I lied. Clearly, I so desperately wanted things to be ok that I was willing to throw my integrity out the door.
“Um, ok…I’ll go get my stuff,” he said and promptly disappeared for another hour and a half while Potential Ride Numbers 2 and 3 left, leaving us with #4 who was, thankfully, still getting his shit together to hit the road.
Ride #4 was a tiny, smoky Toyota – both in color and smell – driven by a senior who didn’t mind fresher hitchers as long as we paid for all of the gas and tolls and a soft pack of Marlboro Reds for the drive. He idled in the parking lot next to the dorm until my Thanksgiving date climbed heavily into the back seat, sprawled out, and promptly fell asleep, leaving me to the front seat and two hours of awkward conversation and cigarette-lighting for the driver. The Thanksgiving Road Trip Mixed CD had shockingly never materialized, so we listened to Metallica the entire time and I contemplated if I would be actually killed or just badly maimed if I opened the door and spilled myself out onto the highway.
We arrived at my parents house a solid five hours past the anticipated time. We were making our way up the familiar path to the warm light of my childhood home, crunching through the fallen autumn leaves, and I suddenly thought that maybe things could be ok – we were here, after all, and it was the night before Thanksgiving and I was at home with my new boyfriend and all could be right in the world. And then the side porch light flicked on with a motion sensor, and we were bathed in the cruel light of truth wherein I realized that my date not only hadn’t showered and was wearing his worst American Eagle jeans with the holes in the knees and his most scuffed pair of Doc Martens, but that he’d creatively “solved” the problem of the massive zit on his forehead by sticking a massive Band Aid on it.
We spent an awkward evening with my parents, who perched questioningly on the edge of the couch thankfully keeping their gazes lowered so as not to make eye contact with the giant, conspicuous-as-all-hell forehead Band Aid. That night, I laid in the bedroom that, only a few months before, had been my home. My posters of Ani DiFranco and Sarah McLachlan implored me to be more thoughtful about my life choices. My tennis racquet and my worn copies of high school classics – Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible – reminded me that until only recently life had been defined by more benign things like reading assignments and doubles matches. My childhood stuffed bunny perched kindly on my pillow and suggested that the knot in my stomach wasn’t so much related to the hungover boy sleeping downstairs but to the fact that my life was changing, dramatically, in ways I hadn’t foreseen, and that I didn’t know how to handle any of it with even a modicum of grace. I had been humiliated by the disheveled creature next to me all night, red-eyed and bleeding the smell of smoke into my parents’ softest afghan, and couldn’t see an inkling of the clever, funny, if slightly bland boy I’d met at a party two months before. He was clearly out of his element too, meeting a girl’s parents when the definition of the relationship so far had been to hang out and watch TV and go to parties with exclusively one person, but only for now – and only while it was still convenient. I couldn’t grasp it at the time, but the truth was if we moved into different dorms that were further apart on campus, or if one of us studied abroad, or if our class schedules didn’t align quite so perfectly, we’d break up and find newer, more convenient partners for hanging out and TV watching and party-going. I think he had a much better sense of this than I did at the time – there seemed to be so much riding on finding the right boyfriend and the right group of friends so quickly out of the gate in college, or so all of my new college friends had been telling me. After first semester, all the good ones were taken and you might as well be alone until second semester sophomore year when all of the new transfers and study-abroad students showed up. I can’t remember why the boyfriend issue was so imperative, but it was, and I believed it, and I’d done everything I could to secure one.
The next morning, Thanksgiving, I woke up to the sound of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the smell of baking. For a moment, I forgot about Stoned Dawson. I was home, and not in a dorm with my neighbor blasting “Baby One More Time” or my roommate angrily slamming things around after a fight with her boyfriend (they were in the second round of breaking up and getting back together and would have two more before things finally ended). I smiled, and then remembered. And unsmiled.
My family and I enjoyed a quiet breakfast and the parade while my date snored away in the guest bedroom. He finally emerged, early afternoon, having actually showered and changed into the requested nicer corduroys and shinier Doc Martens, a fresh Band Aid applied to his head which had somehow and unfortunately bulged even more since last night. He had slept off his hangover and ravenously ate sticky buns left over from breakfast and accepted a cup of tea from my mom. He was polite and inquisitive and, if it weren’t for the forehead Band Aid and bad memories of yesterday, I would have been thrilled to see all of my Boyfriend-Thanksgiving dreams coming true. We passed the afternoon playing Scrabble and watching football, and it was almost – almost – exactly as I’d imagined it.
Until my brother, five years younger, came home for dinner. He’d been at a friend’s house the night before and was only just getting to meet the stellar romantic candidate I’d brought to Thanksgiving dinner. He stared, unabashedly, at my date’s forehead bringing a fourteen-year-old’s unadulterated candor to the situation. He blinked and furrowed his eyebrows and – I could tell – was thinking both long and hard about what to say. Certainly not out of any deference to me, but because I had presented him with the holy grail of opportunities to humiliate his older sister and he knew that his commentary needed to be well-timed for maximum effect.
We sat around the table, breathing in the sights and smells of the joys of Thanksgiving. We held hands and said Grace, we minded our manners, and we talked about football and lightly grazed the more polite edges of politics and current events. My date limited himself to two glasses of the cabernet reserve, and everyone was on their best behavior. And then it all fell smashingly to pieces.
We were talking about some social ill and some deficient government policy, something about a half-assed gesture to remedy homelessness or hunger or the like. I should have seen it coming, I should have stopped the train, but I didn’t – so blinded was I by the brilliance of how beautifully everything was finally going. And then it happened.
“Well, they shouldn’t just, you know, PUT A BAND AID ON THE SITUATION AND HOPE THAT NO ONE WILL NOTICE,” my brother said. Silence. Dead silence. And then laughter. Waves of it, because my family firmly believes that if you can’t laugh at yourself then you are not entitled to a sense of humor.
Dawson was apparently not entitled to a sense of humor, because he did not, as such, find it funny. I didn’t find it funny either, because I was already feeling the stony silence of the very long two-hour car ride back to school, the awkward goodbye as we headed back to our dorms. The avoidance that would follow and the inevitable break-up. I hadn’t, up to now, been able to see anything in terms of the future of this relationship beyond what I desperately wanted to happen, and now I saw it unfurl clearly and devastatingly before me. Dawson, like me, was in a place in his life that didn’t allow for any humorous self-deprecation or grace in dealing with stressful interpersonal situations. That farcical Band Aid had been holding it all together and, in a moment of truth, it was ripped off and everything fell apart.
We broke up, of course, and got back together three times before the Final Breakup. I have no idea, in retrospect, why we kept getting back together except that everyone else was paired off, and a lot of our friends were friends, we had similar class schedules, we kept ending up at the same parties, and it just made sense for awhile until it didn’t anymore and it never did again.
The Band Aid joke has never gone away. “Remember the Band Aid guy?” became the punch line to every joke about my dating life. Eventually, I also came to find it funny, and learned that with all of the subsequent boyfriends I brought home over the years, everyone was quick to point out some fatal flaw in him – something I knew innately but was trying to hide from myself and others – and this went on through the years until I brought home the boyfriend that I would eventually marry. He walked into my family and belonged there, and whatever flaws were pointed out were ones he and I already knew – he was too tall, too smart, knew too much about computers – and he gladly volleyed the now-friendly “criticisms” with ease. There was nothing about him that I needed to hide or bury or hope that no one noticed. Best of all, he wore nice clean pants, arrived and left sober, and didn’t have a Band Aid on his forehead.