If you need to be mean
be mean to me
I can take it and put it inside of me
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
I have a picture of us from when we were ten years old — Rose, Audrey, Sam, and me. We’re standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway that cuts across our hometown like a life line across a palm. Our arms are wrapped around each other, affectionate and possessive with the weight of preteen desires. Have you noticed the way young girls cling to each other in photographs? Maybe we knew then the terrible possibilities of separation. If we hadn’t held on to each other so tightly through childhood, how would things have ended?
That was all before we grew apart. That was before I hopped on a plane, before Rose came to meet me, before we ended up in the mountains of Italy, alone in a 300-year-old farmhouse. That was when we still lived in our small universe of Halfmoon Bay, in homes secluded from the highway by long gravel driveways and undisturbed forest. What would have happened if the ghost had shown up then, when we were still so connected, instead of a decade later, across the world when there were just two of us in the middle of the night? More… “Gone Ghost”
Just don’t leave me alone
Wondering where you are
I am stronger than you give me
– Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
Sometimes being a girl is like being possessed. I look back on us, on our childhood on the Coast, on running away, on returning, and I wonder: Did any of this really happen?
There’s a picture of us as kids. I used to have it in a frame, but somewhere along the way I started using it as a bookmark. I won’t think of the girls for months, and then I’ll pick up a book and the picture will fall out. There they are; how could I forget them? Rose, Audrey, Sam. I say their names aloud and it becomes a spell — like magic, I’m ten years old again. More… “Ghost Girls”
“I’ve organized a happy hour with a wonderful group of women friends who periodically gather to support each other and share ideas and food,” Lane’s email concluded. “I’m attaching an invite.”
Lane* is a fellow writer whom I’d met in grad school and always liked. It had been many months since we’d last communicated, and I welcomed her invitation.
I looked at the flyer. “This is a great time to envision and work towards common goals and individual life pursuits,” it read. “Let’s share some of our ideas and projects that we hope to accomplish or advance in this new, exciting, uncertain, life-affirming year ahead!” More… “The Price of Friendship”
Kathryn Paulsen writes for stage and screen as well as page. Her essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the New York Times, West Branch, New Letters, et al., and may currently be read or are forthcoming in journals including Humber Literary Review, The Stinging Fly, and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in New York City but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places. See her occasional musings at ramblesandrevels.blogspot.com.
We’ll go to Del Taco,
And order something macho.
And when your lips go down to take a bite,
Your face is covered in food but it’s alright,
You know it’s gonna be good, you and me tonight.
─ Hunx and His Punx “Good Kisser”
The day my friend Rich bought a Del Taco T-shirt from an employee was the day I realized that my fixation with the fast food Mexican chain was about more than beans. Back then, in 1993, I was an 18-year-old Arizonan obsessed with California beach culture. I owned a boogie board that I used one week a year. I wore vintage Hang Ten and Hobie surf tees that I found at Phoenix thrift stores. I favored Van’s and cutoffs, and I rode a late ’60s red and white Schwinn beach cruiser whose sleek beauty and tall white walls had strangers yelling “Hey, Pee Wee Herman!” at me on the street. If the southern California coast was the center of my landlocked universe, then Del Taco was a bright star in my sky. What did I know? Fresh out of high school and uncertain about the future, I was searching for an identity. All I knew for certain was that I wanted to live on the beach. More… “Cheddar Suns over Lettuce Mountains”
When I was 13 or 14 I spent a certain amount of time in my local record store in suburban Connecticut contemplating the cover of Projections by the Blues Project: five proto-hippies hanging out on the corner looking slick with their polka dot shirts and sideburns. And that guy with the coolly arrogant stare with his finger hooked in his belt loop – who was that? Kooper, the most famous one, I recognized from his association with Bob Dylan, and Katz I knew from the covers of two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums, a band that had even then achieved far more success than the already defunct Blues Project. But the swaggering hipster who caught my eye – that was Danny.
I met Danny Kalb in 1996 at a party in Park Slope, where he had lived for some years after the breakup of the Blues Project and a spell in California that had not been good for his mental health. Danny had founded the band in 1965, making the progression from Greenwich Village folkie and resident guitar virtuoso to plugged-in rock and roller. For a while the Blues Project, with their progressive blending of blues, rock, pop, and jazz, looked like they might be the Next Big Thing, but it never panned out; as Danny once told me, he had been a minor rock star for a couple of years. Most people agree that neither Projections nor its under produced predecessor Live at the Café Au Go Go really did justice to the band. Like many a cult band, they never quite got down their vibe on wax. I prefer their third and last album, Reunion in Central Park (1972), which comes closest to capturing their almost-as-tight-as-a-jazz-band-but-not-obsessed-about-it essence. The boxed set The Blues Project Anthology (1997), in the grab-bag way of the band, contains a rich miscellany of rockers, pop ballads, jazzy instrumentals, blues standards, and throwaways, but I can’t improve on the superb liner notes by John Platt and anyway what I really want to talk about is Danny, the only rock star, minor or otherwise, I’ve ever known. More… “A Minor Rock Star”
I pulled a packaged alfajor that I bought for breakfast at the bus station out of my backpack and got into my new hotel room hide-a-bed. The photo on the foil packet of two sugar cookies held together by a thick layer of dulce de leche and coated in shiny chocolate promised a good time, but what the actual snack delivered, to my amazement, was a sensation that felt like 400 calories of pure, uncritical love. I spent some time in bed smelling the package.
When I offered the wrapper to my Israeli friend Hadar for her to smell, she turned me down from her bed, where she was examining the split ends of her curly blond bangs while she smoked.
“Disgusting,” she said. “Sweets are disgusting.” She pronounced the second syllable in a throaty way, but the amount of time and spit she spent on the… More…
When I lived in Japan I joined a flower arrangement club. I didn’t have any interest in flowers, or tradition, or grace, so it was an odd move.
I did, however, have a friend who was the president of the Ikebana club at our university, who had helped me out a lot in the first months of school. In classes Ryoko made sure I was following along by grabbing my sleeve and whispering, “Understand, Emi?” She blinked a lot and made audible breathing-in noises whenever she was about to explain something difficult or ask me a question she thought I could potentially answer no to. So when she invited me to come watch her Ikebana club, I could only say yes.
The sensei, who was in her late 70s, helped me prune my branches and buds into the appropriate shapes. Then she impaled them at specific angles onto a square… More…
It was around the time I met Victor that he started actively trying to get out of Cuba. He worked in tourism, illegally, and between jobs he fought for the paperwork to move to Spain. We worked together for a summer, then I went back to the States, and he was still where I left him when I came back to Cuba the following summer to work again. I was employed by a program for American high school students that combined educational travel with casual coursework. For me, being in Cuba, though my job occupied me around the clock, was like a holiday.
When I saw Victor again he didn’t look well. His body, as before, was solid: he was shorter than I was, which is to say below the height of the average American woman, and his arms and back were sturdy and masculine and muscled, his trunk square… More…
“Wild night?” my roommate sat down on the corner of my bed and asked.
“What are you talking about?” I had never had a wild night in the year I lived in Boulder, but I was flattered that she thought I was capable of pulling one off, and I wanted to hear more about this wild night of mine. I stretched out in my bed. It came from a dumpster, but it was king sized, and it was a good bed.
“That guy in your car,” she said. “Did you guys have a fight?”
“What?” I thought back on the night before. I remembered watching the dog obedience class in the park across the street from our porch, and then, when the class was over, throwing crackers at the squirrels while they had really loud sex on the porch banister. It was wild, but not the kind of wild I… More…
Matthew, the small Burmese Kayin man who worked the front desk at the Lotus Guesthouse, was the first one to suggest that Mr. Benny might be dead. “Benny went back to Burma so he could die near his family,” he told me, his eyes fixed on the TV set as flickering Shiites danced in the streets of Iraq. “He was too sick to live in Thailand any more.”
I had just returned to the rainy border town of Ranong, Thailand, after an absence of five months. It was April 9, 2003, the day U.S. tanks rolled into central Baghdad. Matthew had been squatting in the guesthouse lobby, translating BBC commentary for the other hotel workers — all of them illegal migrant workers from Burma. Deciphering the images from Iraq proved to be a difficult process, since even the BBC commentators didn’t seem to know what was going on. Had Baghdad… More…